Friday, May 26, 2006

This Summer’s Congolese Election: Can the United Nations help establish democracy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

By Richard Norman

The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo are planning to vote in their first free election in more than forty-five years on July 30th. (‘Planning’ as opposed to ‘set’ as it has been delayed six times already). The election hopes to bookend a particularly catastrophic decade for a people who have no living memory of peace and prosperity. The recent war (1996-2003), in which nearly four million people lost their lives, was only the most brutal in a long series of indignities perpetrated on ordinary Congolese by foreign and domestic powers. Precipitated by the kleptocracy and solipsism of President Mobutu, who over the course of his thirty year presidency (1965-1996) raided his country of billions of dollars in resources, loans, and reserves, the Congo War engulfed much of the region and its consequences still strongly resound. It is the immediate backdrop to this election.

Recent history is important for understanding how the Congo got where it is—but history can do little to help the United Nations administer this vital voting process. Math is what counts. How do you register sixty million far-flung people, many with different tribes, languages, and loyalties, many brutalized by years of war? How do you establish thousands of polling stations and protect them from active marauders? Perhaps most importantly: how do you get the millions of ballots to these thousands of polling stations? Not on wheels. Many parts of the country are inaccessible by road.

Like MONUC’s peacekeeping operations—currently the UN’s largest and most expensive—administering the DRC election is the most logistically complex ever attempted by the organization. The Congo is nearly two and a half million square kilometres in area, comparable to Western Europe. But unlike Western Europe it has no roads to speak of, little or no infrastructure, and has had no census in more than twenty years. To say nothing of the east of the country, unanswerable to Kinshasa, and still profoundly effected by the remnants of war. Furthermore, aid to the region has been redirected in the last year to Darfur, resulting in only a portion of the six hundred million dollars required for immediate humanitarian relief, according to the head of MONUC. Thousands of preventable deaths are occurring every month. These facts, flung on the table like a folded poker hand, seem daunting. Recent Iraqi elections were “a walk in the park” compared to the upcoming Congolese poll, according to one prominent UN coordinator. “No one is pretending these elections will be totally democratic . . .” says another. And already those few internationalist op-ed writers aware that elections are forthcoming are brushing dust off their copies of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and searching out choice quotations to underline their pessimism.

But this lading list of problems and caveats are not the full story. While MONUC has recently come in for harsh criticism for sexual abuse allegations against members of its peacekeeping forces and numerous election day delays, overall neither criticism nor indifference are fair tones to take with its accomplishments. A two year drive to register voters has been an impressive success, more than doubling the roll from twelve million to twenty-six million voters. Many said this would be impossible. But dedicated volunteers and UN officials have worked tirelessly to pull it off. A referendum on a new constitution (which activated much of the legal groundwork for this summer’s election) was held successfully in December of last year and was approved by eighty-five percent of voters. The referendum can be seen as a skeleton trial run for the elections.

What is important is not a flawless poll. There will be many problems—to expect otherwise would be unfair. What is required for success is, at a minimum, the avoidance of widespread renewed violence and the inauguration of a new president with a basic popular mandate. This is not—to borrow a phrase from President Bush—“the soft bigotry of low expectations,” but a nuts and bolts realism. A moderately successful election is not an ending place: it is a foundation. And though a host of problems face this upcoming vote—many detailed in a recent International Crisis Group report—there is evidence of a massive popular will, a strong national urge to begin to close the book on a century and more of misery. It was shown by the number of people who have registered to vote and by the turnout in the referendum (picture), with many traveling hours or days to reach polling stations to cast their ballots. It is easier, after all, to quantify the problems facing the election than to measure the strong desire for sweeping change. The election is seen by the Congolese as the first opportunity in a long time for them to take control back of their country, after decades when apathy and fatalism deeply damaged the country and its people. It is impossible to predict the success or failure of the July 30th elections, but there is more room for optimism now than there has been for a long time.