The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s 2006 presidential and legislative elections had much higher stakes for the Congolese and, in the eyes of many, for Africa than most elections. The country had not had democratic elections since the 1960’s, the time of men like Patrice Lumumba. Further, civil and ethnic strife, exacerbated by the lures of the country’s vast mineral wealth and the 1994 Rwandan genocide, plunged the Congo into an immensely costly and bloody civil war that lasted through to 2003. President Joseph Kabila, whose father had wrested power via a coup in 1997, ran an interim government and submitted the fate of his position to the will of his people in 2006. The international community, particularly the United Nations, viewed these elections to be a stabilizing force in a region that desperately needed it. In the words of the Carter Center’s report, “the 2006 elections marked the formal culmination of a transitional peace process underway since 2003 and represented the Congolese people’s first real chance for peace and democracy since independence in 1960.” If democratic elections could successfully and peacefully create a stable government there, then it would set an example for surrounding countries. As such, the UN mission in the country was the largest such mission ever to that date, and also comprised a substantial peacekeeping force of 20,000 troops. The newly minted Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) invited the Carter Center in 2005 to observe the elections, an offer the Center accepted with the stated mission to “contribute to a credible electoral process that met international standards and facilitated a democratic and peaceful transition in the DRC.”
Creating democratic institutions in any country in the DRC’s position is monumentally difficult, but the circumstances there made matters entirely more complicated. Political actors were intensely concerned about the lack of a national army. Much of the country was subjected to a form of warlordism, where leaders had their own personal guards loyal to them. It was very important to the peace process that these individually loyal militias be consolidated. The DRC is also a vast country, much of it consisting of impassable rainforest. There is only limited rail and road access to the interior of the country and just as limited phone access: 10,000 poorly maintained lines as of the 2006 election. Despite this, the CEI was able to register 25 million voters out of an estimated 28 million eligible and set up thousands of polling stations in time for the elections to take place. There were many issues outside of the CEI’s control, including the very political structure in the DRC. Many political parties in the country are not structured upon a very firm ideological stance and, indeed, the two frontrunners in the presidential election, Joseph Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba, largely preached the same messages. Without ideology as an identifier, parties are often structured around the personalities of their leaders, with ethnic identification often an important factor. The British government attributed this pattern in some ways to state weakness: “The lack of social security institutions leaves citizens dependent on their regional, social, religious, and ethnic communities and thus inclines voters to favor candidates sympathetic to their groups.” Partially because of this, the CEI found itself faced with a massive proliferation of candidates for office: 33 for president and over 9,000 for legislative office, leading to immensely complex ballots that proved logistically difficult to ship and very challenging for voters, many of whom had very little civic education, to cast an informed vote. The largest ballot in Kinshasa featured 864 candidates on it. The CEI also had to hire, train, and pay 250,000 election workers, no small feat.The Carter Center noted major problems in campaigning, with many media companies owned by those with political interests or by the candidates themselves, often broadcasting xenophobic and inflammatory remarks about the other candidates.
Election authorities went in to the affair knowing that there would be major issues and there were, but international observers were confident and optimistic heading into election day. The fact that election day was even happening was a significant event in itself, and preparations, while imperfect, had successfully registered voters and set up the mechanisms by which they could cast their ballots, with no small amount of logistical and technical support from international actors like the UN. When the time came, approximately 70% of those registered voted. The Carter Center lauded the atmosphere as being calm and peaceful, with only isolated incidents of violence. When the results came in, Kabila led with 44% of the vote, a plurality but not the absolute majority needed to win, meaning a runoff had to be scheduled between himself and second place finisher Bemba. Kabila’s party, the PPRD, won 212 of 500 seats in the national assembly and achieved a strong majority through coalitions. In the aftermath of the results, the highly personal nature of the political situation led to the unfortunate result of conflict. Violence repeatedly broke out between supporters of the two presidential finalists, resulting in several dozen deaths and a significant amount of finger pointing.
In light of an extremely tense political and social environment, a short election calendar, and facing questions of their own legitimacy, election authorities confronted a formidable task in the runoff. Logistically, matters were somewhat easier as there were only two candidates, not 9,000, and the CEI applied some lessons learned from the first round. Much of the concern about the affair appeared to apply not to the election, but to the possible aftermath. Both men and their supporters were concerned about their fates if the other were to win. There were agreements as to codes of conduct and one form that would grant the loser immunity if he accepted the results, but only Bemba signed. For the most part, campaigning consisted of character assassination and often descended into xenophobic hate speech. Carter Center observers related their own experiences in the matter, claiming that “observers collected examples of leaflets emanating from each camp questioning the nationality of the other candidate.” Tit for tat violent scenes, such as one incident in which a fire started at Bemba’s headquarters and young Bemba supporters went on a vandalism spree, were common.
Once again, however, polling itself was relatively calm and most issues were logistical and predicted. The CEI delayed the release of 8% of the results, which caused controversy, but Kabila wound up winning with 58% of the vote, a clear cut victory. Violence broke out in the aftermath, with Bemba claiming fraud. He also asserted that while he was at peace with the results, he could not guarantee that his supporters would agree. The Economist described these supporters: “Bemba’s men strode around in army fatigues, colorful loincloths, traditional masks, and amulets before taking over sandbagged UN positions.” The Carter Center claims that while there was probably fraud, it appears to have benefited both candidates equally, and Bemba’s claim of being at peace with the results appears to be a method of bumming off responsibility. His complaints to the courts were struck down, and he responded by vowing to “in the interest of the nation and in order to put an end to violence he would carry on his ‘fight’ within a strong opposition.” After Kabila’s successful inauguration, the Center noted that these elections were a major triumph for the Congolese, but that politicians need to promote positive outcomes instead of hateful rhetoric, and that institutions, particularly the CEI, need to be open, transparent, and diligent to maximize their actual and perceived credibility, thus minimizing chances of disputes and further violence.
Five years later, the DRC faced perhaps an even more difficult test as it organized the 2011 elections with several important factors that did not apply before. Firstly, the constitutional election structure changed from a majoritarian system in which a candidate must win over 50% of the vote, in a runoff if necessary, to a plurality system featuring one round in which the candidate with the most votes wins. This would seem to benefit the incumbent Joseph Kabila, as the many opposition parties then faced a large amount of pressure to coalesce around one candidate to maximize their chances of winning. Secondly, the massive international presence of 2006 was no longer the case. There were international support groups on hand but, for the most part, the onus was on the DRC’s own election authorities to run matters. Monetarily, the International Republican Institute states that while in 2006, the DRC footed 10 percent of the cost of elections, in 2011, that number had increased to 60 percent.
As before, the CENI (formerly the CEI) faced major logistical issues. As of 2011, the DRC was home to over 67 million people, 32 million of whom were registered voters, but also 428 political parties and 5 official languages, and most of the political parties are small and receive little public assistance. The Carter Center noted that the CENI struggled supremely to hold the elections in this context. Civil society groups in the country helped, particularly in voter education, but they had few resources to do so. Tense political rivalries continued, though with new rivals. Jean-Pierre Bemba, Kabila’s primary challenger in 2006, was and, as of 2016, still is imprisoned by the International Criminal Court for War Crimes. Etienne Tshisekedi of the MLC and newcomer Vital Kamerhe of the UNC party led the opposition to Kabila in a race that was marked by questionable campaign tactics, particularly from Kabila, including his booking stadiums for rallies, which would be closed to his opponents afterwards, as well as the questionable arrests of political opponents and journalists. The national media company also devoted an overwhelming preponderance of its political broadcasts to Kabila. The media environment more generally was compromised in its impartiality by the fact that “many Congolese media stations are associated with or owned by a political party or politician.”
In regards to actually putting the elections on, the CENI found itself faced with numerous concerns about its own legitimacy. Many of its members were political appointees and none came from civil society. Many, including the Carter Center, viewed the election calendar it held itself to as unrealistic, and it missed many deadlines. There was no provision for absentee voting, and many newly registered voters had no way to get to their polling stations. There was significant concern that many voters did not fully understand why their vote was important. The Carter Center found that the staff of many poll stations were poorly trained and this poor training, especially in the tabulation phase, only served to exacerbate the question of the CENI’s credibility. According to the Center, tabulation centers in many areas “were poorly planned and chaotic in their operations, compromising the integrity of the results process in those areas.” The CENI also did not make every effort at transparency, which should have been of paramount importance to cement its own legitimacy.
This combination of uncertainty about the candidates and about the election organizers themselves led to an uncertain election climate. Many assumed that the elections would be illegitimate no matter what. Though polling and voting was relatively calm, with isolated pockets of violence that partially resulted from inadequate security, the tabulation went so poorly that the Carter Center had to call the elections as compromised. Kabila officially won with 49 percent of the vote, with second place finisher Tshisekedi securing 32 percent. Kabila’s party also achieved a landslide victory in parliament, securing 341 of 500 seats in conjunction with its allies.There was, however, wanton disregard for election materials, which were just left outside, unsecured and exposed to the elements, leading to the loss of results from 3,000 polling stations, amounting to about a million votes. The Center also noted major concerns about fraud in Katanga province. Overall turnout in the province was unrealistically high, at over 90%, and multiple districts recorded turnouts of 100%, with 100% of those ballots being for Kabila. The idea that every single registered voter in these areas would vote for the same candidate with absolutely no spoilage or incorrect procedure brought major suspicion of irreparable fraud. These suspicions began to undermine the electoral process, resulting in major candidates crying foul. Vital Kamerhe claimed that “there can be no doubt as to the scale of the fraud, deliberately planned by those in power with the connivance of the national election commission.” Finally, the CENI refused the Carter Center access to the central data center in Kinshasa, thus making it impossible to validate any results. Thus, while the CENI claimed Kabila the winner, the Carter Center and other observers denounced the results, and both Tshisekedi and Kamerhe protested vocally. Dr. John Stremlau, co-leader of the observation mission, stated that “in essence, we do not know who actually won the presidential election…”
In the aftermath of the election, the Center proposed several improvements that could be made to the DRC’s electoral system, including major reforms in voter education, poll worker training, and general transparency and professionalism.
Since 2011, the status quo has mostly been maintained. As of July 2016, Kabila is still the president and former opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba has been sentenced to 18 years in prison. The CENI has postponed its scheduled elections on account of an incomplete voter registry. Many of the country’s prior issues are still extremely salient, as ethnic conflict and political corruption are widely prevalent. In Ituri province particularly, deaths from war, famine, and disease continue at alarming rates. Significantly, protests broke out in the country in 2015 after a bill came before the national assembly that would have allowed Joseph Kabila to stay in power until after a national census was passed, which likely would have been several years after the 2016 elections which he was constitutionally barred from entering. An amended law with the census requirement struck out was passed and protests dissipated, but not before several dozens of people lost their lives and the country experienced SMS and internet blackouts. This points to a trend that was visible in both the 2006 and 2011 elections in which police have not been shown to have adequate training on proper use of force, often quickly using overt violence that could have been avoided. Further, it points to a trend on the part of President Kabila to quash any and all possible resistance. Another example of this occurred in spring of 2016, when Congolese security forces arrested possible political challenger Moise Katumbi on rather dubious allegations of trying to overthrow the government. Katumbi, according to the New York Times, seemed to “have the whole city of Lubumbashi and a good party of the country rallying around him…and he has begun to unify Congo’s opposition, which no other politician has ever come close to doing.”
Hope for presidential elections in 2016 to determine Kabila’s successor and possibly a new leaf for the DRC are on hold as of August, with CENI President Corneille Nangaa declaring that the timetable to do so by November just is not realistic in keeping with updating the national register, a process predicted to take 16 months. Opposition leader Tshisekedi, who returned to the country after a two year absence in late July, has demanded that the elections take place and further that Kabila resign, but these ultimatums have gone unheeded. The CENI argues that this is essential to guaranteeing fair participation, but opposition members have been clear in stating a complete loss of confidence in the CENI, which brings fragile peace into serious doubt in the coming months.
Observed and monitored elections that had the potential to secure stability in central Africa for many years.
Helped to bring to public attention major electoral issues that threatened to and, in 2011, ultimately did compromise the integrity of the electoral process.
Pressured the electoral authorities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to reform the electoral system and establish truly democratic institutions.
 International Election Observation Mission to Democratic Republic of Congo 2006, Presidential and Legislative Elections Final Report. The Carter Center. June 1, 2007. 5.
 “MONUC Facts and Figures.” The United Nations. June 30, 2010. http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/past/monuc/facts.shtml.
 International Election Observation Mission 2006, 5.
 Ibid., 15.
 “Elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006.” United Kingdom Department for Internal Development. December 1, 2010. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/67652/elections-cd-2006.pdf.
 International Election Observation Mission 2006, 12.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 63.
 International Election Observation Mission 2006, 73.
 Ibid., 75.
Report of the International Republican Institute’s Pre-election Assessment of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The International Republican Institute. September, 2011. 3. http://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/fields/field_files_attached/resource/democratic_republic_of_the_congos_2011_presidential_and_parliamentary_elections_pre-election_assessment.pdf
 Presidential and Legislative Elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, November 28, 2011 Final Report. The Carter Center. October 30, 2012. 13.
 Burke, Jason. “Jean-Pierre Bemba Sentenced to 18 Years in Prison by International Criminal Court.” The Guardian. June 21, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/law/2016/jun/21/jean-pierre-bemba-sentenced-to-18-years-in-prison-by-international-criminal-court.
 Presidential and Legislative Elections 2011 Final Report, 40.
 Ibid., 69.
 Dizolele, Mvemba. “DRC’s Crumbling Legitimacy.” Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. July 3, 2012. http://www.osisa.org/hrdb/blog/drcs-crumbling-legitimacy.
 “Fraud Allegations as DR Congo Voting Extended.” Al Jazeera. November 29, 2011. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2011/11/20111129115053539900.html.
 Presidential and Legislative Elections 2011 Final Report, 3.
 Gettleman, Jeffrey. “Congo Lurches Toward a New Crisis as Leader Tries to Crush a Rival.” New York Times. May 11, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/12/world/africa/congo-moise-katumbi-joseph-kabila.html.
 “EU Urges Political Dialogue in DR Congo as Government Rejects Opposition Demand for Elections this Year.” Africanews. August 3, 2016. http://www.africanews.com/2016/08/03/eu-urges-political-dialogue-in-dr-congo-as-government-rejects-opposition-demand/.