The DRC votes: What next?

The Congo election is likely to be won by either Kabila or Tshisekedi, but whoever wins, there is a high risk of unrest.

DR Congo election
In Congo’s capital Kinshasa, Etienne Tshisekedi enjoys strong support for his bid for presidency [Reuters]

Atlanta, Georgia – Although most observers believed the Democratic Republic of Congo to be inadequately prepared to do so, the country held its second post-war elections on Monday. Massive problems plagued the process, including hundreds of thousands of registered voters finding their names missing from the electoral rolls, polling stations lacking sufficient numbers of ballots (and, in some cases, not having any ballots at all), and voters having little guidance on where to vote if they were at the wrong precinct. Accusations of fraud are flying, with several opposition candidates already rejecting the uncounted results and widespread reports of pre-ticked ballots, pre-stuffed ballot boxes and extra ballots being flown into the country.

The perception of fraud led to violence on Monday in Kananga, a stronghold of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi. Voters there attacked and/or burned down several polling stations in the belief that ballot boxes had been filled in advance of the election. Violence also broke out in Lubumbashi, where armed men attacked a polling station and some electoral materials appear to have been burned. 

 DR Congo elections marred by fraud allegations

The chaos at some polling stations made it impossible for all voters to participate, and late Monday, CENI, Congo’s independent national electoral commission, announced that voting would continue at some stations into Tuesday. By late Tuesday, there were strong indications that some polling centres would remain open through Wednesday in order to give every Congolese citizen the chance to participate. Meanwhile, voting did proceed peacefully at the vast majority of polling stations, and the vote count is already underway throughout the country. 

Many of the country’s 10 opposition candidates have already called for the election results to be annulled, arguing that they cannot possibly represent the will of the Congolese people given the circumstances. Notably, leading opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi has yet to do so. Tshisekedi clearly believes that he won a plurality of the votes and should be the DRC’s new president. As he is unlikely to accept any other result than himself winning, it seems Tshisekedi will wait to voice his disagreement with the conduct of the elections until results are announced. 

Who will win the Congolese presidential election? It’s anybody’s guess. There were no exit polls and no reliable, scientific polling with an adequate sample size carried out prior to the vote. It is likely to come down to a contest between incumbent President Joseph Kabila and Etienne Tshisekedi.

Tshisekedi enjoys very strong support in western Congo, especially in the Kasai provinces, where members of his Luba ethnic group are numerous, and in Kinshasa. Kabila hails from the east, but support for his policies and rule has waned in recent years. However, some of Tshisekedi’s outlandish statements of the past few weeks (such as when he called on his supporters to “terrorise” the government) may have pushed some voters back to supporting Kabila or another candidate. No one knows what will happen in the days to come, as the results depend largely on how accusations of fraud are addressed and resolved, public reaction to the outcome, and the international community’s response. 

What is likely to happen next? There are two likely outcomes, with many, many possible permutations within each scenario. The first scenario is that Kabila wins outright. The second is that Kabila loses (likely to Tshisekedi), but claims victory anyway or wins through fraud. In either case, there is a high risk of violence. 

Few have considered the possibility of Kabila actually leaving office, and almost no observers think he will abandon power voluntarily, regardless of the election results. The risk of violence is significant if Tshisekedi and his supporters lose the election or believe that they rightfully won the election. While it seems a bit far-fetched to predict a Côte d’Ivoire-style crisis evolving into civil war, we are likely to see violent protests even if Kabila legitimately wins the election. 

Such a scenario will also pose a challenge to the international community. Despite Kabila’s repeated calls to end the UN peacekeeping mission, it and other international actors share a good working relationship with Kabila’s administration. While privately most Western diplomats and UN officials will note that Kabila’s regime is based largely on patronage and secrecy, few see any other potential Congolese leaders who would be less corrupt. Kabila is a known quantity and one with whom many in the international community would prefer to continue to work. However, if mass fraud in the electoral process is proven, this relationship could be strained. That may not matter for Kabila; he also enjoys an excellent relationship with the Chinese government, for whom it would also be easiest if Kabila’s rule endures. 

Leaders in the Great Lakes region have reason to prefer a Kabila victory as well. Most important among them is Rwandan President Paul Kagame, with whom Kabila privately reached a rapprochement in 2009 that led to increased stability in the eastern Kivu provinces. The agreement between the two heads of state is oral, not written, and as such is likely highly personalised. Most analysts also believe it gives Rwanda guaranteed access to Congolese minerals, as well as providing security guarantees for Rwanda, which faces an ongoing threat from the Congo-based FDLR rebels. It is unclear whether Tshisekedi or any other presidential candidate would be able to reach a similar agreement with Kagame. Most of Tshisekedi’s supporters – and most western Congolese – believe that Kabila is Rwandan by birth and that this “fact” drove him to cut a deal with Kagame. While evidence for this claim is limited to say the least, it would be politically difficult for Tshisekedi to be seen negotiating or co-operating with Rwanda, which could lead to serious problems in regional relationships.

The Congolese diaspora, however, sees things quite differently. There, support for Tshisekedi is strong. The diaspora is a major source of financial support for the campaign, which has been issuing press releases in English that are clearly intended for an international audience, both Congolese and not. Few in the diaspora believe that Kabila can legitimately win the election, and theirs will be among the loudest voices if he claims victory. 

Tshisekedi may win the election outright and, contrary to all expectations, it is within the realm of possibility that Kabila would gracefully step down and allow a transfer of power to take place. The most likely outcome, however, is that Kabila will claim victory while Tshisekedi’s supporters take to the streets in protest. If this happens, the international community will likely push for a power-sharing arrangement as it did in Kenya after 2007’s disputed elections. Whether Kabila and Tshisekedi could actually come to a power-sharing agreement is impossible to predict.

The international community provided inadequate support for Congo’s 2011 elections, and it is inadequately prepared to deal with any kind of violent or prolonged post-electoral crisis. Diplomatic efforts to prevent violence and bring all parties to the table should be intensified and should involve international actors at the highest levels. The International Criminal Court should follow through on its promise to closely scrutinise any violence associated with the elections. All actors should hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.

Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College. She blogs about African politics, development and security at Texas in Africa.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.