By Jennifer Thompson Staff Writer 3 May 2019

The January 10 declaration of Felix Tshisekedi as the new President of the  Democratic Republic of the Congo brought widespread unrest in the Central African nation. The DRC held general elections in December 2018 to determine the successor of President Joseph Kabila, who held office since 2003. Since the election, opponents have charged Tshisekedi, the leader of the DRC’s main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), with numerous counts of election fraud. Remedying the internal fracture and emerging violence in the DRC will require full government transparency, a re-examination and restructuring of the country’s electoral infrastructure, and the assistance of international partners.

Tshisekedi’s declaration as winner of the 2018 DRC presidential elections provoked widespread condemnation. In response to the announcement of Tshisekedi’s win, Martin Fayulu, the election runner-up, called the results an “electoral coup.” The Catholic Church, whom many Congolese view as one of the sole trustworthy authorities in the DRC, delegated 40,000 election observers to monitor results as they unfolded. The Church stated that the electoral results were widely inconsistent with polling station data and preliminary results. The African Union (AU) also contested the electoral results and claimed that it had “serious doubts on the conformity of the provisional results as proclaimed by the National Independent Electoral Commission.”

According to a Financial Times analysis of the electoral results, Fayulu won 59.4 percent of the vote, Tshisekedi won 19 percent, and ruling party candidate Emmanuel Shadary won 18 percent. This largely diverges from the Congolese Independent National Electoral Commission’s (CENI) official announcements that gave Tshisekedi a decisive victory with 36.6 percent of the vote, while Fayulu and Shadary scored 34.8 percent and 23.8 percent, respectively.

Numerous irregularities were reported during the election, including missing materials at polling stations, hundreds of incidents of unsealed ballot boxes, and improper verification of voters’ identities. In one of the most egregious cases, the electoral commission barred more than a million Congolese from voting, justifying the decision  as a public health measure due to an ongoing Ebola outbreak in two eastern cities in the DRC. Though the Ebola outbreak was a legitimate concern at the time of the election, health officials proclaimed that they had taken proper precautions to screen voters entering polling stations. Many Congolese see these widespread irregularities as evidence of blatant electoral fraud.

Though Tshisekedi has vehemently denied charges of corruption, Fayulu filed a fraud complaint with the DRC’s constitutional court to contest the election results. The constitutional court, however, ultimately confirmed Tshisekedi as the presidential winner.

Skeptics of the electoral results expressed concern that Tshisekedi won the election as a result of cutting a deal with Kabila that would enable the latter to share the newly-elected president’s powers. Although he will no longer be president, Kabila is granted a lifetime position in the Senate via the Congolese Constitutions, and a power-sharing deal with Tshisekedi would ensure the continuation of Kabila’s policies. These concerns proved valid, as Tshisekedi and Kabila announced early March in a joint statement that they will govern together as a coalition government between Tshisekedi’s CACH coalition and Kabila’s FCC coalition.  

The ongoing unrest fostered by the contested election results threatens stability in an already fragile country that is riddled with violence. Fayulu’s supporters rioted in the streets following the electoral results: the UN Human Rights arm reported 34 deaths, 59 wounded, and 250 arbitrary arrests since the election announcement in January. In response, the African Union (AU) vowed to send a team to the DRC to mitigate the burgeoning internal crisis. However, after meeting with the DRC shortly after the initial election results, the United Nations Security Council called on the Congolese to remain peaceful in the wake of the constitutional court’s decision.

Much of this current violence is residual from the country’s civil wars which began in the 1990s and led to the deaths of three million people. The call to arms is reportedly erupting in the Eastern Congo, and the larger implications of violence between citizens are especially troubling, not only for a country embroiled in a humanitarian crisis but for the surrounding region as a whole. Last year, Angolan Foreign Minister Manuel Domingo Augusto said that “what happens [in the DRC] affects the entire Great Lakes region,” calling the country “the mother of all crisis.”

The regional community has weighed in on the situation. Prior to Tshisekedi’s confirmation as president by the constitutional court, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) issued a recommendation for a recount in order to “provide the necessary reassurance to both winners and losers.” The international community has also issued a response; the United States, France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom requested detailed election result tallies from the DRC, a move that could put pressure on the DRC’s political elites to enact more transparent measures surrounding the 2018 election or DRC elections going forward.

The DRC’s current turmoil demonstrates the detrimental effects of election fraud and inadequate transparency surrounding a pivotal election in the country’s history. Electoral fraud undermines the very framework of democracy and greatly diminishes citizens’ faith in the legitimacy of their political institutions and elected leaders. Regional African organizations, particularly the AU, must exert greater pressure on the DRC to remedy its insufficient electoral process so that the 2018 election will not set a precedent for future elections in the DRC. This requires the AU to adopt an unyielding stance against electoral fraud, as it appears that “peace over democracy seems to have been the call African Union leaders [have] made” as of late. Democracy must not be sacrificed in the name of maintaining peace, as the lack of the former may eventually undermine the latter. The United States and European countries must echo this intolerance to electoral tampering, if necessary providing resources with respect to sharing of best practices, providing necessary personnel, and supplying technology that can help bolster the DRC’S electoral infrastructure.

While vocal condemnation of the 2018 elections process, coupled with material assistance from international leaders and institutions is paramount, the DRC must assume the main responsibility for enacting measures that will improve its electoral infrastructure to prevent failures in the future. Polling stations must have adequate supervision, electoral officials must ensure that voting equipment is brought up to standard, and law enforcement must establish a heavy security presence throughout the voting process to deter criminal behavior. If the DRC enacts these measures, it will help address legitimate concerns surrounding Tshisekedi’s win and may assist in quelling the present turmoil in a critical Central African nation whose internal divisiveness threatens susceptible neighbors. Most importantly, it may prevent the reoccurrence of a heavily contested election in the DRC.

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Jennifer Thompson is an M.A. Candidate in the Security Policy Studies program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Her research interests are primarily in the Middle East with a focus on counterterrorism. Jennifer received her B.A. in International Affairs and minor in English from George Washington University in 2011.