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Congo’s Implausible Democracy

The Democratic Republic of the Congo will soon hold its first democratic presidential elections since the country gained its independence in 1960. It should be a moment for celebration. But the lavishly funded experiment—to the tune of half a billion dollars—will do little to remedy the country’s endemic corruption, chaotic security, and crippling poverty.

On July 30, after multiple delays, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will hold its first free elections in more than four decades. There are no fewer than 33 contenders for the presidency and 9,707 candidates for the national assemblys 500 seats. Western donors have chipped in nearly $500 million to finance the balloting, in addition to the $1 billion spent each year on the countrys 17,000 strong U.N. peacekeeping forcethe worlds largest.

The Congolese people appear engaged in the process. More than 25 millionnearly half the countrys populationhave registered to vote. Campaigning is in full-swing and election rallies are commonplace. But for all the excitement and investment, DRCs first encounter with democracy in decades is likely to be an unpleasant one.

The obstacles that democracy faces in the country are staggering. The average Congolese lives on less than a dollar a day with limited or no access to clean water, nutrition, healthcare, and education. Some 1,200 die each day from disease and starvation. Thousands of abandoned or orphaned children wind up toiling for no pay in the countrys vast diamond mines.

U.N. peacekeepers struggle to maintain a patchy ceasefire brokered in 2003, following a civil war that killed more than 4 million people. Still, the eastern provinces of the country are overrun with militias and the undisciplined Congolese army, who kill, loot, and rape at will. Violence and intimidation are rife; several people died on July 19 when gunmen fired on an opposition rally, just days after a political meeting was interrupted by a shootout. There have been widespread calls for the army to be confined to barracks on election day to prevent voter harassment.

Decades of kleptocratic rule have sapped the publics trust in public institutions, which are weak and ineffectual. Churches are the only civil-society institutions with popular credibility, but their influence is limited. Access to scarce land has polarized tribal groups and led many to form militias that often attack civilians. It is hard to conceive of these communities now resorting to majority rule to settle their disputes.

Even these handicaps are dwarfed by the greed and irresponsibility of much of the political class. Corruption is endemic. Most politicians, military leaders, businessmen, and bureaucrats have spent their time in office plundering state resources at a rapid rate, following a well-established Congolese tradition. The quest for personal enrichment has triggered widespread distrust and makes it all but impossible for the different organs of the state to cooperate.

There are also deep suspicions that foreign interests are meddling in the vote. Angola, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe have all had forces or proxy groups operating in Congo recently, and they all have an interest in the outcome. Election campaigning thus far has revolved around the issue of whether candidates are real Congolese or foreign agents in disguise. Accusations of treason, complicity with foreign powers, and pending invasions poison the public sphere.

Suspicions of foreign influence are well founded. The lack of trust among Congolese politicians has obliged elites to accept a great deal of international assistance. Indeed, the International Committee In Support of the Transition (CIAT)which includes the United States, the European Union, and South Africahas significant influence in the country. Unfortunately, its members have not alleviated doubts about their intentions. They appear to prefer stability over democracy and have done little to conceal their preference for the incumbent, 35-year-old Joseph Kabila. Earlier this year, the popular opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi tried to reverse his ill-conceived decision to boycott the elections, but CIAT administrators refused to reopen voter registration for his supporters, arguing that it would further delay the elections. Many Tshisekedi backers interpreted this decision as an implicit endorsement of Kabila.

The West clearly favors Kabila, but so too do a plurality of Congolese. His victory on July 30 is virtually guaranteed. But Kabilas position is in part a function of his control of state resources and his intimidation of opponents. His support is less an expression of confidence in his platform than a reflection of the hunger for peace and desire for a strong leader who will manage the countrys deep social divisions.

The lavish funds invested in the elections mean that they may still come off with only minor disturbances. But a happy outcome is much less likely for the postelection period. While the expected Kabila victory should bring about some stability, it will also reinforce his supporters belief that they own the state and its resources. The quick exodus of U.N. troops and foreign election supervisors will free the government from foreign supervision. Large segments of the population will remain alienated, not least rural populations, women, and students. Violence is likely to continue in the east where government troops will be progressively emancipated from U.N. control.

These elections have proven so expensive and complicated that another vote will be a long time coming. Barring a coup or resumption of open warfare, Kabila should be in power for years. In short, the DRC is likely to revert to the predatory and personal rule that has characterized so much of its history. National elections after decades of warfare and autocratic rule should be a momentous time in a countrys history; in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they will mean more of the same.

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