How Ballots Are Being Used to Delay the Congolese Election
Elections cost too much, the government says. But the years-long delay is more likely a power grab.
Election ballots in the Democratic Republic of the Congo can look more like the weekend edition of a newspaper than the single folded sheet of paper common the United States.
Congolese electoral laws allow a nearly unlimited number of candidates to run for parliament. In the coming election, now pushed to 2019, there may be as many as 28,000 candidates, each one with their name and photo printed in a ballot.
The expense and logistical difficulties of printing and distributing 45 million of these massive ballots are nearly insurmountable. After they’re printed, ballots must be trucked or flown to 126,000 polling stations around the country. The electoral commission has yet to acquire the necessary funds, and the voter registry isn’t complete.
Or at least, these are some of the official reasons given for why Congo will not be holding elections for another year and a half, according to a source familiar with the election process who requested not to be named.
“In 2006, we got huge support from the [United Nations]. We used 108 aircraft supported by the U.N. But today there is none,” the source told Foreign Policy in an interview in Washington, D.C. “The budget is around $600 million. Who is going to fund [this]?”
Presidential and parliamentary elections were scheduled for December 2016, but those were delayed, with President Joseph Kabila and the opposition coming to an agreement that elections would be held in 2017. Even with the agreement, the election delay has threatened a political crisis in the young Central African republic.
Kabila, who assumed office after his father, President Laurent Kabila, was assassinated in 2001, has already completed two six-year terms — the maximum allowed under the constitution.
Opposition members claim that the younger Kabila is trying to hold on to office until he can find a way to change the constitution to allow him to stay in power longer, or even indefinitely, as has happened in Rwanda, Burundi, and elsewhere.
Dozens died when rowdy protests and subsequent crackdowns broke out after Kabila refused to hold elections last December.
But on Tuesday, Congo’s Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) announced that elections would be pushed back 504 additional days, to mid-2019. That could be a disaster for the unstable, corruption-riddled government, opposition leaders and analysts say.
“What the CENI has announced is not an electoral calendar but an election-killing agenda,” said Claudel Lubaya, a member of the opposition, in an interview with Reuters.
“If elections are not held this year, it will embolden the opposition” and support their allegations that Kabila is carrying out a power grab, John Mukum Mbaku, a nonresident senior fellow with the Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings, told FP. “It will create the kind of frustration among members of the opposition that could launch the country into more sectarian violence.”
Since December, the country has faced pushback from the international community. The United States, Britain, Belgium, France, the United Nations, and human rights groups have called on the government to respect the rights of its citizens to peacefully assemble and to hold elections in a timely manner.
In the run-up to Tuesday’s announcement, the Congolese government has hired prominent lobbyists in Washington, D.C., including Nancye Woolsey (the wife of former CIA director James Woolsey), former U.S. Senator Bob Dole, and Donald Trump campaigner Adnan Jalil. In an unusual arrangement, Congo has also agreed to pay the Israeli firm Mer Security and Communications $5.6 million this year to help coordinate lobbying the Trump administration and Republican leadership.
The agreement between Kabila and the opposition was a “lie” to the Congolese people, said the source familiar with the electoral process, because it was logistically impossible to hold a fair election in 2017.
The source denied that Kabila was behind the delay but admitted that “maybe President Kabila is profiting from this.”
The DRC embassy in Washington did not answer multiple calls and an email on Thursday.
But the argument that elections are logistically challenging and expensive is the same argument given almost a year ago when the vote was delayed the first time.
There’s a real possibility, Mbaku said, that in 2019, the president “and the electoral commission would find some other thing to complain about and postpone the election again.”
Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr