The Strategic Use of Electoral Mismanagement in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Photo:Enough Project / Fidel Bafilemba (http://www.flickr.com/photos/enoughproject/6323357262/) (CC) 'Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow' with Kabila.
CREDIT: Enough Project / Fidel Bafilemba

After enduring 32 years of Mobutu's looting and dictatorship, followed by the post-Mobutu decade of violence that involved various African states and their rebel proxies, and claimed four million lives, the presidential and legislative elections held on November 28, 2011 were a historic opportunity for the Congolese to move beyond this destructive past and rebuild their fragile state.

This was the country's third experience with multi-party elections after the founding election at independence in 1960, and the national election in 2006 that marked a formal end to the post-war transition. Since these elections were organized by the Congolese independent election commission (CENI), replacing the UN stewardship of the 2006 elections, it was also a test of the democratic commitment of nascent Congolese institutions.

Unfortunately, the nature of the mismanagement that ensued suggests that it was power politics and strategic manipulation that ultimately prevailed. CENI's work was hampered at the outset when it was established by the government three years later than mandated by law. Both electoral and judicial institutions failed to assert their independence. Perhaps foreshadowing what was to come, international groups had cautioned in the pre-election preparatory stages that the manner in which technical preparations were being undertaken undermined confidence in CENI's role as an impartial body. The Supreme Court cited technicalities in refusing to rule on the question of irregular candidate lists that was brought to its attention by the main opposition party. There were crackdowns on opposition rallies and radio stations. For ordinary Congolese who nonetheless seemed enthusiastic about voting and eager for change, the political impasse that has followed these elections are a particularly bitter and disappointing outcome.

Joseph Kabila, the incumbent, was officially announced as the next president with 49 percent of the popular vote. Having assumed the presidency after the assassination of his father in 2001, he was later elected in 2006. This victory in November's election gives him a second term, by the end of which he will have been in power for almost 15 years. The Supreme Court, perceived by the opposition to be pro-Kabila, and whose judges were appointed just ahead of the election, upheld the verdict. Etienne Tshisekedi, the runner up with 32 percent of the vote as per the official result, has called for mass protests and defections from the military. The Catholic Church in the DRC has protested that the results were "not founded on truth or justice." Tensions run high. A few days after Kabila's official inauguration, Tshisekedi took the oath of office and declared himself president. The government has responded with police crackdowns, military patrols, and suppression of the media. Instead of empowering ordinary citizens, these elections have relegated them to watching this political theatre from the sidelines.

International observers are strangely divided in their assessment. While the African Union and SADC observers stated that the elections were "successful," the U.S. government noted that "the management and technical execution (of the elections... were seriously flawed." The U.S.-based Carter Center observed that the elections "lack credibility" and rated as "poor" the work of 40 percent of the result compilation centers countrywide. It noted serious irregularities in Kinshasa, the capital, where the opposition was expected to win. Opposition party witnesses and observers could not verify procedures that were used in compiling the votes. The ballots from one in five polling stations in Kinshasa ended up lost. According to an EU report, of the 4875 polling stations countrywide whose results were not computerized or counted in the final tally of provisional results, almost half happened to be in Kinshasa.

The Curious Phenomenon of "Logistical Challenges"

In a country two-thirds the size of western Europe, that is covered by dense forests, crisscrossed by vast rivers, and has only 3,000 km of paved road, organizing national elections has been a formidable challenge. Ballots and election materials were transported by boats, planes, and vehicles struggling over dirt tracks. Nonetheless it is curious that despite similar logistical challenges in 2006, the voting, counting and compilation processes in 2006 were generally run in an acceptable fashion. Although the results were challenged by the main contender, international observers did not claim that there were irregularities that seriously marred the elections. It is likely that Kabila won in a generally free and fair setting because he had the support of key individuals who delivered large swathes of the country to him.

In 2011, however, Kabila faced uncertain prospects. His erstwhile ally in the east had declared himself a presidential contender. There was widespread disillusionment with his government. Thus, the problem of "logistical challenges" in 2011 may have been more contrived than inevitable. In 2006, observers had praised the work of the CEI (independent electoral commission), a transitional institution responsible for running the elections under UN auspices. From a logistical standpoint, it would be hard to explain why the next electoral cycle would be more chaotic, not less, given the experience that was accumulated earlier.

It is particularly puzzling that this time around, logistical problems plagued electoral operations in Kinshasa, the bustling capital city of ten million people. With the city's commercial hub, its robust infrastructural and communications resources, decent literacy levels, CENI headquarters and electoral education opportunities et cetera, the costs of preparedness and training should have been lower in Kinshasa than in more distant places. It is difficult to explain how some polling stations ran out of ballots during voting, or why result compilation centers (known by the acronym CLCR) in the city were scenes of chaos as ballots arrived from the polling stations. Sealed envelopes were opened up by unauthorized personnel, ballots were ruined in the rain, and results from various polling stations could not be located as CLCR staff appeared to be overwhelmed with the task of sorting and archiving them systematically.

In Kikwit, a smaller town about 500 km from Kinshasa, it did not appear that logistical problems were insurmountable. Electoral personnel pushed beyond their means to get the job done, clarifying the rules, findings ways to organize their work, and cautioning each other to stay calm when things got stressful or minor squabbles broke out.

But then Kikwit town was believed to be a Kabila stronghold. The dominant party in the area, PALU (Independent Lumumbiste Party) was part of Kabila's presidential coalition. According to prevailing sentiment, violence was expected in Kinshasa where Kabila faced stiff opposition, but since PALU operatives were projected to deliver the town, and even the province to Kabila, things were likely to remain calm in the area. Applying a similar logic to electoral management issues, it made sense to actively mismanage or at least create conditions ripe for mismanagement in areas where the votes were likely to stack up against the incumbent, and to attribute these to technical weaknesses and inherent logistical challenges presumably inevitable in a country like the DRC. In contrast, a regularized and smoothly running electoral operation in Kikwit (as the account below shows happened) would directly boost the incumbent's victory.

As election observers stationed in Kikwit, my colleague and I spent an entire day trying to identify the physical location of a random sample of polling stations from each district in the town. A narrow paved road served as the town's main artery, on both sides of which were cooperative offices, police posts, political party offices, markets, and the local university. Once off this main road, brick buildings gave way to mud and thatch houses accessible only by bicycle or on foot. With the 12 polling stations selected for observation (out of the 339 in Kikwit), we had a good spatial coverage of the town, as these were distributed along the town's periphery, on the main road, and off this road in the interior.

Voting, Counting, and Compilation Processes

There were a few tantalizing glimpses of irregularities on election day. We heard rumors of votes purchased for the rate of two pieces of fish. Opposition party workers appeared to be uncertain about what institutional channels existed to lodge their complaints. In one district, opposition party witnesses alleged that CENI staff members were allowing inside the booths only individuals handpicked from locally dominant parties. At other stations, CENI personnel had chosen to pre-empt these allegations by allowing 16–20 witnesses from all parties inside. This created its own problems as overly compliant polling station presidents could not control the party witnesses, who shouted out procedural directives or reprimanded fumbling voters. They monitored each other, however, and this checked the influence of any particular party inside those booths.

We observed approximately 10–12 minors, roughly in the age range 10–14 years, who voted. A CENI staff member explained that chronic malnutrition in the region had apparently stunted their physical growth. But this did not seem to be a generic phenomenon in Kikwit, judging from the thousands of other adults who had come out to vote. Generally though, things proceeded in an orderly fashion. No polling booth ran out of ballots, and CENI personnel were conscientious about checking the list of registered voters, inking the fingers of those who had voted, and securing the ballot boxes.

The most challenging and potentially contentious part of the day was just beginning as voting came to a close at 5 pm and CENI staff at each polling booth prepared to count the ballots in closed-door proceedings. As this was an area without electricity at night, the counting depended on the availability of lanterns. At the polling booth where we observed the counting (a classroom at a technical institute), there were only enough batteries to power one small lantern. Party witnesses and observers arranged themselves in a semi-circle around the lantern, leaving a central area open for CENI staff to work. At the outset, everyone was alert, taking notes and counting aloud as each presidential ballot was taken out of the box, double-checked, and the vote announced. It was almost 11 pm by the time the counting of the presidential ballots ended. Except for a diligent few still taking notes and following the count, most party witnesses and observers were asleep resting their heads on the tables; others were sprawled out on the floor. Since polling stations had opened at 6 am, the collective exhaustion was palpable.

However, the task of counting the legislative ballots still remained. This job was especially tedious. Each ballot was several pages long, and the president of the booth, a conscientious young woman, made sure they went through each page to verify that the vote was identified and called out correctly. It was 2 pm the next afternoon (November 29) before the results were posted publicly. Work had proceeded painstakingly, as CENI staff had been working without food and without much of a break since the wee hours of the previous morning. It is not clear why computer-generated result forms with candidate names already listed were not provided so that CENI staff would only have to manually record the final vote beside the name of each candidate. As it was, their final laborious task was to write out the names of the dozens of candidates on the official forms provided, before they could record the final vote for each. In some polling booths across town, the results were posted only later that evening.

For the majority of polling booths, the ballots and result forms were packed up and locked in storage rooms on site guarded by one or two policemen. These ballots arrived at Kikwit's compilation center (CLCR) the next day (November 30). A CENI truck made multiple trips, personal vehicles accompanied by police guards were used, and an installment of ballots was spotted being pushed across town in a wheelbarrow, secured by a police escort. This was later to become a point of contention for opposition party witnesses who argued that the ballots could have been tampered with, either en route or as they lay overnight in storage at polling station sites. As the compilation process unfolded and some polling stations necessitated a recount, some of the ballots had votes marked for candidates in red felt-tipped pens, not the blue ballpoint pens that were standard issue at the booths. Although mysterious, these comprised a small number, not enough to change the margin of victory for the candidates who won at those particular booths. And importantly, since the ballots had been systematically archived, it was not difficult to retrieve those for a particular polling station whenever the need arose to cross-check or recount.

Opposition party witnesses hinted privately that CLCR personnel were pro-Kabila because they were affiliated with the party PALU. However, CLCR officials made a serious effort to ensure that opposition party witnesses and observers who were present could verify the compiled and computerized results for each booth against the hand-written final result form from that booth. On another occasion, the president of the CLCR organized a special meeting in his office to address questions raised by opposition party witnesses. The problem was that handwritten result forms from several polling stations did not carry the signatures of party witnesses. He also invited the president of one such polling station to respond to those complaints in person. Explanations centered on the fact that polling station officials had been exhausted and made a mistake; that they had misunderstood that signatures were required in addition to the names of witnesses printed in bold; or that observers had left hours before the results were being written up at the booths. This appeared to placate party witnesses and domestic observers somewhat even if it did not convince them entirely.

Disempowering the People

If there was cause for significant concern, it was that the president of the CLCR maintained that he had instructions from CENI in Kinshasa not to post the compiled results for Kikwit town in a public place. This meant that there would be no way to verify the final compiled numbers that would be transmitted from Kikwit to CENI in Kinshasa, which in turn would publish only the compiled figures at province level, resulting in a systematic loss of transparency from ground level up at this final stage in the electoral process. Possibly under pressure from domestic and international groups, that order was reversed and the president of CLCR in Kikwit posted the results on the evening of December 4. The transparency problem remained, however, as CENI headquarters in Kinshasa did not make available for public scrutiny polling station level data for each province. This information was distributed on CDs to embassies and observer groups only. Overall, international monitors critical of the November elections agree that the most serious irregularities were concentrated in the CLCR stage.

Logistical and technical challenges during compilation could have been handled most efficiently in Kinshasa; yet that city became the locus of some of the most egregious problems. If the concentration of population in Kinshasa was higher than in other places, it would have been commonsensical to provide for more compilation centers to prevent the kind of chaos that ultimately unfolded. Indeed, most of the "technical challenges" could have been easily anticipated.

Mismanagement in Kinshasa, a Tshisekedi stronghold, suited the incumbent's interest, while areas in which the ruling party or its affiliates were dominant did not experience chaos on a similar scale. If in Kikwit, the process from voting to compilation unfolded smoothly, in places such as Katanga, also a Kabila stronghold, things were more tightly controlled, even stage-managed. A Carter Center report notes that more than 100 percent of registered voters apparently turned out on election day, with almost all votes going to Kabila! Finally, party alliances, patronage politics, intimidation, the use of government funds to dwarf his rivals' campaigns et cetera were political factors that were also part of Kabila's victory, cementing the gains from technical mismanagement in rival strongholds.

International observer groups estimate that the lost or ruined ballots at CLCRs countrywide (including Kinshasa) account for anything between 1 and 1.6 million votes. As the Carter Center notes, this is not enough in itself to definitively change the electoral outcome given the official margin of 2.4 million votes between Kabila and Tshisekedi. Nonetheless, it is enough to cast a shadow of grave doubt on the credibility of the electoral process and the election's top and middle-level managers.

While international monitoring groups were authorized only to observe and apply specific criteria for the conduct of free and fair elections, their verdict does have some power to legitimize or undermine the winning party. Kabila's inauguration was undoubtedly bolstered by the positive assessments of the AU (African Union) and SADC. At the same time, the questions raised by critical international observer reports have been serious and public enough to pressure the government into accepting a team of international experts to review the electoral process. That this review will not address the Presidential election, and will focus only on the legislative ballot, works in Kabila's favor. But critical international reports have also strengthened the claims of the opposition. This means that the political impasse looks likely to continue as long as Tshisekedi presses on and Kabila refuses to yield to political negotiations.

If the present impasse results in a large scale outbreak of political violence, ordinary citizens will be at great risk, despite the presence of MONUSCO, the UN stabilization force deployed in the country. It may be time for the international community to take a more assertive position on the standoff than it has until now.

At the end of the day, these elections have betrayed all those who came out to vote imagining that it would matter somehow in the larger scheme of things, and all those foot soldiers of CENI who toiled night and day in polling booths across the country to make this gigantic operation a success. It has undermined public confidence in state institutions, making the task of rebuilding a failed state a dream more distant that it has to be. And thus, unhappily enough, it is again that things do not look good for the DRC.

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