Election preparation in the Congo: The cross with the elections

Election preparation in the Congo: The cross with the elections

Concern about the next elections is growing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Above all, the churches warn of irregularities and war.

A man sits on a chair and is photographed with a labtop while being photographed by the press

Christmas Eve 2022: Election commission head Denis Kadima registers biometrically Photo: Justin Makangara/Reuters

BRUSSELS taz | Will the next elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo be held correctly and on time? A new president and a new parliament are to be elected on December 20 this year. Congo’s last election, in December 2018, took place two years late and the result – the proclamation of Felix Tshisekedi as the victor – is widely considered result of manipulation.

“We know that Félix Tshisekedi’s election was a fake and we said so at the time,” said the Catholic Archbishop of Kinshasa, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, a few weeks ago, recalling the criticism of the time Catholic Bishops’ Conference CENCOwhich, with its own nationwide network of election observers, had found different results than the Congolese electoral commission CENI.

Today the churches in Congo are once again supporting the work of the electoral commission in preparing for the next elections – and are sounding the alarm. A few weeks ago, representatives of the Catholic Church and the Protestant Église du Christ au Congo (ECC) visited Brussels for talks with the EU and warned of increasing problems that endanger the integrity of the electoral process.

The electoral register is currently being updated – all those eligible to vote in the huge country with almost 100 million inhabitants have to register again, the CENI calculates with exactly 49,382,552, nine million more than five years ago. Across the country, staggered by province from west to east, CENI employees are on the move with machines for the biometric registration of voters and the issuing of new voter ID cards.

Registration is complete in the west of the country, now it’s the turn of the east. However, in large parts of North Kivu province, where the rebel movement M23 (March 23 Movement) CENCO General Secretary Donatien Nshole and ECC spokesman Eric Nsenga warned that large areas of the country are controlled and no voter registration can take place.

Insecurity in North Kivu and the neighboring province of Ituri has forced 4.2 million people to flee. Even if IDPs manage to register, they may end up voting somewhere other than the constituency where they are registered. This would distort the election of constituency MPs.

Uncertainty is not the only problem. Congo’s government encouraging self-defense militias to act as “patriotic” militias against the M23, described as Rwanda’s puppet, is increasing tensions, Nsenga said. In the end, eastern Congo could remain largely excluded from the elections.

Oddities in voter registration

With their joint election observation mission, the two major churches discovered a number of irregularities during the first phase of registration in the western part of the country, some of which indicate a will to voter fraud, they say.

300 blank voter cards were seized in Masimanimba district of Kwilu province. In Kasai Province, a vehicle belonging to the Kinshasa Electoral Commission was involved in a traffic accident and found nothing but voter cards, voting materials and voter registration machines. Both incidents were confirmed by the electoral commission.

With their joint election observation mission, the two major churches have already identified a number of irregularities during the first phase

According to the churches, material for the identification and registration of voters has often fallen into the hands of unauthorized persons. Some would run their own registration centers, giving them an early opportunity to stuff ballot boxes with fictitious votes.

The Catholic-Protestant observer mission speaks of a serious security problem that could damage the trust of the population and the credibility of the elections. “It would be irresponsible to proceed with a process whose credibility is seriously in question,” say the bishops.

The problem of fictitious registration centers – i.e. the mass production of voter ID cards without the appropriate voters – seems to be widespread. In Matadi, capital of Congo-Central province, 13 of the 35 registration centers on the electoral commission’s list turned out to be non-existent. “How can it be that a school that does not exist serves as a place of registration?” ask the bishops.

There are also speculations that voter registration works particularly well in presidential strongholds. In the southern province of Haut-Katanga, stronghold of opposition leader Moise Katumbi, there are 551 registration offices for an estimated 3 million eligible voters. In Kasai-Oriental province, stronghold of President Félix Tshisekedi, there are 574 offices for just 1.34 million eligible voters.

distrust between church and state

The distrust between church and state power is already great. Congo’s Catholic Church and President Tshisekedi’s UDPS (Union for Democracy and Social Progress) once fought together for democracy in the country. But the way Tshisekedi became president has created divisions. In 2021, Tshisekedi squeezed his candidate Denis Kadima for the presidency of the electoral commission CENI against the express will of the churches.

The irregularities that have now become known confirm this accusation in the eyes of Tshisekedi’s opponents, first and foremost the party alliance FCC (Common Front for Congo) led by ex-President Joseph Kabila, who is still considering whether he would like to run again himself. The FCC has described the work of the election commission as “corrupt” and is demanding a suspension of the election preparations.

So does Congo have to prepare for an election postponement, like last time? Bishop Nshole, head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, is against it – Kabila had already delayed the end of his term of office from 2016 to 2018 with such a maneuver.

“The elections must take place in 2023,” says Nshole. “But you have to create the conditions, especially securing the election materials.” His Protestant colleague Nsenga is more critical: “The churches will not support a flawed process. Elections are not an end in themselves.”

There is a lack of money

The election commission and its critics agree on one point: there is a lack of money for proper election preparation. According to CENI President Kadima, he has not received anything from the state budget since September, and the government is not complying with a plan to release funds.

The churches have called on international donors to fill the gaps and want US$15 million from the EU for their own election observers so that they can keep an eye on CENI. So far, the US has given $1.6 million and the UK $300,000, said Clément Makiobo of the Church’s Justice and Peace Commission in Brussels.

But the churches also fear that in the end renewed electoral fraud could be covered up by the international partners, like 2018. At the time, all donor countries knew that Tshisekedi was not the regular winner – but they recognized him for the sake of peace, despite criticism from election observers. “We felt let down,” Bishop Nshole recalls and hopes: “Time has passed and they have learned their lessons from it.” Time will tell.

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