Under perilous conditions, the DRC is about to embark on a new electoral cycle that will begin in December and continue through 2024. Fighting in the east of the country and in other regions has deprived more than a million citizens of their voting cards. The opposition, faced with increased repression from the government and an Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) that it sees as favourable to the ruling party, is tempted to reject every stage of the process.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) organises a new electoral cycle, starting with a presidential election on 20 December 2023 and other elections in 2024, under dangerous conditions. President Félix Tshisekedi is standing for a second term in the face of a divided opposition and armed conflict in the east part of the country.
What is the significance of these elections? After the 2018 disputed elections and the violence that ensued, these elections will be crucial for consolidating democratic progress in the DRC. Managing the electoral process without consensus increases the risk of contested elections and related violence, which could undermine the country's stability.
What should be done? The government should limit abuses by the security services, the electoral commission should better guarantee transparency, and all parties should denounce inflammatory rhetoric. International partners should help the players to find political compromises and be prepared to mediate if the results are contested.
The situation. The DRC is about to embark on a new electoral cycle, under perilous conditions, starting in December and continuing through 2024. Fighting in the east of the country and in other regions has deprived more than a million citizens of their voting cards. The opposition, faced with increased repression from the government and an Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) that it sees as favourable to the ruling party, is tempted to reject every stage of the process. At the same time, the risk of localised violence is high. A close or disputed presidential result could also lead to a national crisis, as was the case in 2018. To mitigate these risks, the government should ensure that all parties could campaign without intimidation or undue restrictions. It should ensure that CENI, which must itself pay its staff and combat voter extortion, is adequately funded.
African and Western powers should encourage politicians to compromise; they should also denounce abuses, support domestic election observers and be prepared to mediate if necessary.
As the elections enter the home straight, President Félix Tshisekedi has some weaknesses, but he is nevertheless well placed to be re-elected. His record is hardly glowing: security has deteriorated in several regions and the boom in the country's mining sector has had no impact on people's standard of living. He has nevertheless strengthened his position by enlarging his coalition to include several major political figures. The opposition, for its part, is hoping to capitalise on Tshisekedi's poor results, particularly in terms of security. However, it is fragmented and faces considerable obstacles, not least the difficulty of campaigning in a very large country with a particularly poor infrastructure. To date, there are few signs that opposition leaders will agree to limit the number of candidates in the presidential election, in order to reduce the risk of their vote fracturing.
The consensus needed for the elections to run smoothly is ... sorely lacking. Political tensions are rising. Numerous controversies and missed opportunities for improvement have marked the electoral preparations, and CENI continues to face considerable logistical and political challenges. The CENI and the government have, from the outset, paid scant regard to the need for transparency and failed to coordinate seriously with civil society observation missions. Voter registration was imperfect, and in particular, the fighting between the armed forces and the March 23 Movement (M23) insurgent group in North Kivu - and insecurity problems elsewhere - deprived more than a million citizens of voter cards. The resumption of fighting at the beginning of October between the M23 and the army and its auxiliaries led to fears that even people with a voter's card would be unable to vote because of the insecurity. In many regions, electoral officials appear to have prevented citizens from registering on spurious grounds, or to have registered them in return for payment.
At the same time, the authorities maintained a "state of siege" (a form of martial law) in two eastern provinces and cracked down on demonstrations and meetings elsewhere, limiting the freedoms necessary for a peaceful campaign. On 12 October, President Tshisekedi announced a partial and gradual lifting of the state of siege, but the lack of respect for political freedoms remains a concern in the heavily militarised eastern provinces.
These problems create multiple risks of unrest during the electoral period and increase the likelihood that the results will be contested. On 30 August, Republican Guard troops massacred more than 50 civilians who were preparing to demonstrate, making evident that the risks of abuse by the security forces during the election campaign are real. Other risks hanging over these elections include clashes between members of the various parties, an increase in attacks by armed groups in the east and around Kinshasa, and violent conflicts at polling stations if officials fail to respect voters' rights or force them to pay in order to vote. In addition, electoral tensions could lead to clashes between communities that are already at loggerheads over local governance, land use and access to mining sites. All these risks are compounded by irresponsible inflammatory rhetoric, both online and offline.
If the losing parties or their supporters reject the results, a wider political crisis could erupt, which could be seriously exacerbated if fighting continues or escalates in the east of the country. The DRC has made many efforts to chart a more democratic future and, in the longer term, to emerge from poverty and war. A badly organised election, which would exclude a very large number of citizens from voting, could undermine these efforts. Nevertheless, a major crisis when the election results are announced can still be avoided. But, if it were to happen, rival neighbours and regional players might not be able to step in to mediate or provide a solution. Many of them are taking part in the fighting in the east of the DRC, but with a very limited degree of coordination and with varied and not always overlapping operational objectives. Some have long supported these armed groups with a view to extending their influence in the country.
The main actors, and in particular the government and CENI, can take essential steps to reduce the risk of localised violence or a wider crisis.
See Élections en RD Congo : limiter les risques de violence with its complete report from Crisis Group