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The electoral puzzle

I have just returned from a three week trip to Central Africa – I promise to compensate for my prolonged absence from this space with copious postings.

The electoral season is, of course, in full swing, as various political parties (UNC, MLC, PALU, UFC-Kengo, ADR-Mwamba) have held their congresses in Kinshasa. (I heartily recommend Alex Engwete’s lively blog postings over the past two weeks on these events). The last few weeks have seen a mixture of electoral ups and downs – on the one hand, the voter registration process has been marred by a series of alleged abuses, with accusations of children, “ghosts” and foreigners being registered across the country. My favorite story among these is that of a Cameroonian UN official whose visiting family had overstayed their visa by many months – instead of paying the fine, he simply decided to bribe electoral officials and get his wife and child registered as Congolese.

Other problems have arisen, as well: the head of the electoral commission has not, as promised, named new officials to his commission to replace the workers who are affiliated with the ruling coalition. In addition, the timetable for the legislative elections seems to be slipping, as parliament and the electoral commission need to urgently pass an amendment to the election law presenting the new distribution of legislative seats in accordance with the voter registration figures (summary: Equateur gains 4 seats; Katanga and Bandundu gain 3; Maniema, Kasai Or and Kasai Occ gain 2; South Kivu remains the same; Kinshasa loses 7; North Kivu and Province Or lose 2; Bas-Congo loses 1 seat). There are now rumors that elections will have to be delayed until next year due to these delays.

On the other hand, candidates have recently been campaigning relatively freely. After initially facing stiff repression, Vital Kamerhe visited the Kivus in June to large crowds. Similarly, Etienne Tshisekedi has hold large rallies in Kinshasa and, just last Friday, in Lubumbashi. This is encouraging news.

But perhaps the most striking feature of this electoral season is the uncertainty. No one has a good, well-founded prediction for who will win the elections. As I have lamented again and again, there has not been any reliable polling in the country, although some unreliable polls have been published (their results largely an expression of their political bias). Each of the opposition candidates seems to believe they are the most popular, in particular Tshisekedi, who has at times presented himself as the sole legitimate opposition candidate and has come close to claiming victory already.

This uncertainty is setting the electoral cycle up for unrest. As civil society activist Donat Mbaya put it recently: “Tshisekedi said in an interview in Belgium that, whatever happens, Kabila won’t win the election, and Kabila has said that whatever happens, he will win the election. In other words, neither candidate is prepared to admit defeat.”

The straw polls I conducted in North and South Kivu testament to this uncertainty. Most of the people I spoke to were disappointed by Kabila, which is symptomatic of his unpopularity in parts of the conflict-ridden East. But many still believed that he would win, by hook or crook. Three main factors were mentioned.

First, Kabila’s representatives have been considerable large amounts of money and gifts in the East. In South Kivu, Minister of Agriculture Norbert Katintima has been responsible for much of this, handing out money, T-Shirts, hats and other gifts to people who attend rallies. Katintima’s involvement has spurred deep cynicism among Congolese, not only because people may vote based on hand-outs, but because Katintima was the deeply unpopular RCD governor of South Kivu between 1999 and 2002 who appears to been able to buy back at least a meager popularity through money and stature. Some of the people I spoke with suggested that these gifts will create a pact of allegiance between their recipients and Kabila’s candidacy that will allow the incumbent to win a substantial number of votes in the East.

This is the first part of the electoral puzzle: Will the distribution of money and gifts allow Kabila to secure votes? This is, of course, a question that has long preoccupied political scientists elsewhere – Sue Stokes, for example, has showed that vote buying coupled with extensive party networks (party operatives monitor their “clients'” behavior and try to make sure they don’t take the money/favors and vote for someone else) has worked in Argentina.

The second part of the puzzle has to do with another way of buying votes. Instead of targeting voters themselves, you target key members of the community: Customary chiefs, priests, NGOs and other leaders. In South Kivu, for example, President Kabila has obtained the support of many key customary chiefs – Mwami Ndatabaye (Ngweshe chief), Mwamikazi Naluhwindja (Luhwindja chief), Mwami Idjwi South and several others (I think both Mwami Kabare and Mwami Kalehe). But in these cases, it is far from clear how strong the sway of any of these leaders is. Many of the customary chiefs have been strongly contested – through succession disputes, erosion of their authority over land, or affiliation with political parties – by the population, and may have a hard time convincing their communities to vote with them. And while some communities are traditionally very hierarchically structured (the Bashi or Bahavu, for example), others are much more decentralized and do not have overall chiefs (the Bembe, Tembo, Rega or Nyanga, for example). Hence, the second question: To what extent can leaders influence the way the population votes? Of course, a corollary of this question is how many leaders Kabila can sway – of course, he has a huge advantage in terms of campaign funding.

The third, and perhaps most important question pertains to rigging. To what extent will Kabila (or other candidates) rig the vote? There are two main ways of rigging: on election day and before election day. Pre-electoral rigging can happen through:

  • Skewing the voter registration process, by setting up more registration centers in some places, or by registering ghosts/children/foreigners;
  • Using state resources, including TV and radio stations, but also the security apparatus to favor your candidacy and the repress opponents;
  • Making sure the election commission is staffed by people close to you;

While election day rigging can happen by:

  • Preventing people from voting in certain areas;
  • Paying people to vote a certain way;
  • Stuffing ballot boxes with fake ballots, either during the vote or after the vote has been finished;
  • Toying with the election results in the computers;
  • Using the judicial apparatus to prevent impartial arbitration of election abuses.

I am sure I have left out some other ways of rigging. I would say that several of the rigging options of the first list (pre-electoral) have already been used, although it is unclear to what extent. Here, the key will be a rigorous audit of the voter lists, which will require time and good organization, as parties would probably have to do this at a very local level (who but local officials could know if a registered voter is a child or dead?)

As for the second list, I am not yet persuaded that political parties and civil society have assembled a strong enough monitoring mechanism, with observers in every voting center to observe the voting and tallying of ballots. That is another imperative.

I leave you with some maps of election results from 2006.

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