This Tuesday, December 6th, the National Election Commission of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is due to announce the preliminary results of last week’s tense Presidential contest. Analysts and academics have warned all week that some degree of violence will likely follow the flawed election between incumbent Joseph Kabila, opposition leader Etiesnne Tshisekedi, and the nine other candidates in the running. If violence does ensue, to what extent is the permissive environment created by the international community to blame?
The election process to this point has hardly been a peaceful one. The month long-campaign before the vote was marred by more than a dozen civilians gunned down by state security forces and Molotov cocktails thrown by the opposition in the streets of Kinshasha. Election Day faced similar challenges, with violence erupting in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi and numerous polling stations going up in flames in the Kasai Provinces, Tshisekedi’s homeland.
Allegations of ballot-box stuffing, ghost polling stations, and thousands of disenfranchised voters abounded, calling into question the legitimacy of what already was expected to be a close election. Tshisekedi’s campaign has openly suggested says they will take to the streets when the inevitable result is declared, those close to Kabila say those who take to the streets will be “smashed”. It’s not hard to see why many fear violence.
Imagine for a minute you are 78 year-old opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi. Given your age, this is likely your last election. Furthermore, your loyal opposition to former U.S. strongman Mobutu Sese Seko has not endeared you to those in Washington over the years and you can’t count on them to put pressure on Kabila to play fair. You know that Kabila is increasingly unpopular in DRC and that given a fair vote, the election would, at minimum, be close. With the President’s friend running the electoral commission, you also know that this is unlikely to be the case. You want to be and think you deserve to be president, so what do you do?
At this juncture, inciting violence seems like a smart - even rational - strategy. Why not call for a massive street protest in your political stronghold, Kinshasa? Kabila has shown his hand; he will crack down with force. Why not then appeal to the Diaspora, who is firmly behind you, and the international media with a simple message - “Kabila stole the election and now is brutally suppressing the will of the people in the streets”, building off themes from the Arab Spring in the process? As the violence picks up in the streets, the Western media will continually note the irregularities in the vote tally that you are calling into question. Suddenly, you have significantly increased your bargaining leverage vis-à-vis Kabila in the domain of international politics.
Now, the ball is in the international community’s court, which to this point has been preoccupied with Egypt’s election – which took place the same day as Congo’s - and with the ongoing crisis in Syria. Would the international community seek a power-sharing agreement like in Kenya in 2007 or Zimbabwe in 2008 to quickly end the crisis in the name of stability? In both of these cases, leaders who lost elections and resorted to violence were rewarded by the international community with seats in government. Similarly, in Cote d’Ivoire last year and Kenya in 2007 opposition leaders who protested violently also won at least a share of control of the state.
It is unlikely that the U.S., EU, or UN will go out of their way to support Tshisekedi, but given a severe crisis it is hard to imagine the West will go out of their way to back Kabila. In the end, the international community is first and foremost interested in peace and stability.
From this point on, it’s anyone’s guess on how things will play out. One thing is sure; inducing a violent reaction to the election results is more effective than appealing to a disinterested international community for help.
So, how did we get to this point? I’d argue that Western half-hearted democracy promotion in countries like DRC is at the core of this incentive structure. The international community begrudgingly gave just enough money and just enough logistical support for the election to be held on time. The international community declared that pre-election trouble signs from logistical concerns, to voter registration, to violent incidents were “troubling” but did not warrant increased attention. They say the International Criminal Court is watching, but with little support from the U.S. will the opposition really be the one worried about prosecution? After all, in the violence that followed Cote d’Ivoire’s recent election, the opposition leader Alassane Outtara ended up as President and incumbent Laurent Gbagbo just arrived in The Hague.
To be sure, those who incite violence should ultimately be held responsible. We must, however, rethink a system that requires a crisis, and only a crisis, for the international community to engage. If elections are going to be the centerpiece of Western democracy promotion, it is important to do it right. Minimum acceptable standards must still resemble a democratic process. Otherwise, elections in many countries will continue to be an expensive exercise for donors - more likely to lead to violent protest than the embodiment of the will of the people. Is this what we are asking for?