The Democratic Republic of the Congo is going to the polls today and tensions are high. From Kinshasa to Lubumbashi, from Goma to Mbuji-Mayi, clashes have broken out between supporters of incumbent President Joseph Kabila and opposition groups. At least 30 people have been killed; many more have been wounded. 

It was not supposed to be like this. After 32 years of kleptocratic rule by the Cold War-era strongman Mobutu Sese Seko, the European Union spent more than half a billion dollars in Congo to underwrite a nationwide election in 2006. It was not perfect, but it was a success. Kabila won the race with 58 percent of a runoff vote with then Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba. 

In the years that followed, Congo made meaningful political and economic progress. Starting in 2007, Vital Kamerhe, then newly elected president of the national assembly, encouraged vigorous policy debates, allowing both the majority and the opposition access to the floor. Parliamentary commissions held hearings on sensitive matters, such as the $9 billion mining investment by the Chinese that set off a national debate about balancing the sovereignty with economic development.

The democratically elected government in Kinshasa made economic gains, as well. The country coasted through the global financial crisis relatively unscathed. In 2010, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank approved a $12.3 billion debt relief package to help alleviate Kinshasa's financial burden, part of the Mobutu legacy. And largely because of investment in the country's extractive sector, particularly copper, the World Bank expects Congo's economy to grow over the next several years at around seven percent annually, one of the fastest economic growth rates in Africa. This success has led the European Union, long the country's largest outside patron, to pat itself on the back, proud to have fostered democracy in what the world considered a failed state. Since 2007, Brussels has largely stepped aside.

So today's election is a Congolese affair. Kinshasa has underwritten most of the cost, estimated at nearly $900 million and counting. The steep bill is the result of a combination of bad planning and logistical challenges that border on the absurd. There are more than 63,000 polling sites in a country that is roughly as big as the United States west of the Mississippi but has just 1,700 miles of paved roads. There are 11 presidential and 18,855 parliamentary candidates representing more than 250 parties. The country lacks the industry to produce voting materials, so everything from ballots to voting booths had to be purchased from China, Germany, Lebanon, and South Africa. 

But the West declared victory too soon. For all the hope that Congo could go it alone, the disengagement from one of Africa's most resource-rich countries -- also one of the most conflict-prone -- has proved hasty. The withdrawal has opened the real possibility of post-election violence that would undermine the gains made in 2006 and threaten the country's democratic future.

The positive momentum in Kinshasa began to fizzle as early as 2009, when Kabila forced Kamerhe out of the parliament after the two disagreed over joint Rwandan and Congolese military operations in eastern Congo. With Kamerhe gone, the open debate system was, too. The president's majority muzzled dissent and passed a hasty constitutional revision in January 2011 that scrapped the two-round voting process in favor of one round.

Jettisoning the possibility of a runoff hands an advantage to the incumbent. In this case, Kabila benefits from his ten years in office, an organized network of parties, and substantial government funds not available to the opposition. What it also means is that Kabila could win with a less than a simple majority -- he only has to tally the most votes of all 11 candidates. Major powers in the West -- especially the United States, France, and Belgium -- wrote off the power play as an internal affair.

But constitutional changes weren't the only internal affair that changed the rules of the game. After years of stalling, last March Kabila's government set up the electoral commission, known as CENI, to carry out the vote. The delay -- the law mandated that it be established in 2007 -- undermined the complex operations ahead. CENI consists of four members from the majority, including Chairman Daniel Ngoy Mulunda, and three representatives of the opposition. Its leaders struggled with technical problems -- just days before the election, ballots and boxes had still not made their way to all of the country's polling places.

But more serious questions have been raised about CENI, including accusations of bias, charges of amateurism, and lack of transparency. The leading opposition party, Etienne Tshisekedi's Democratic Union for Social Progress (UDPS), has filed an official complaint with CENI about what it calls massive fraud and corruption of the voter registry. The UDPS alleges that the CENI has been stocking voter rolls with potential Kabila supporters. Tshisekedi's party alleges that more than two million voters listed in areas favorable to Kabila are either redundancies or phony names. For its part, CENI has repeatedly rejected UDPS' call for a transparent, independent audit of voter lists.

The government has also used its power to tilt the media landscape in the president's favor. Since the campaign officially began on October 28, state-run radio and television channels have not granted opposition parties equal access to programming time as required by law. In Kinshasa, billboards of Kabila are everywhere, while the opposition has run into trouble. Civil society groups have reported that members of opposition parties have been harassed when they tried to post campaign materials in public spaces. The harassment is often violent: UDPS partisans were beaten when they placed Tshisekedi's posters at Rond-Pont Victoire, a prominent and popular city square. Plainclothes police officers then destroyed the posters.

Poisoning the climate further, there is no adequate forum for a dialogue between CENI and the opposition, effectively denying the two sides a constructive platform to communicate. Meetings tend to happen on an ad hoc basis, driven by events or crises, not by a set schedule. Meanwhile, the commissioners representing the minority have remained quiet over the allegations leveled by the opposition. As a result, UDPS has staged weekly street protests in Kinshasa to demand that the integrity of the electoral process be reinstated through an independent audit of the voter registry. Police and security services have cracked down on the protests and intimidated members of the opposition.

During all of this, the Western and European bodies that supported democracy in Congo just a few years ago have appeared content to look the other way. Diplomats from the United States, France, Britain, and Belgium have praised CENI for enrolling 32 million voters, no doubt an impressive feat considering the enormous logistical challenges. But voter enrollment is the first step of an electoral process -- not the end. These same international actors have remained silent about the allegations of fraud and irregularities, even as Congolese and international human rights organizations denounced violence and abuses.

This all leaves Congo ripe for post-election violence. Because Kabila changed the constitution, he may win in one round but with a lesser percentage. Such a victory would only grant him a limited mandate, not the respectable popular endorsement and legitimacy of 2006 runoff victory. The lack of broad support would likely fuel more discontent and street protests, particularly if the election were not deemed fair, credible, and transparent.

There is a way forward. The government in Kinshasa and the international community share the obligation to protect Congolese citizens from violence and conflict. The government has to take appropriate disciplinary action against human rights violations meant to intimidate voters or candidates, and it must safeguard civil liberties. Kabila may think he can strong-arm his way through the election and its aftermath, but he cannot -- withering public support will only spur further challenges to his rule. 

Likewise, CENI has to transparently relay the results to assure that the election was free and fair; doing so will also restore confidence in the process. As for the international community, the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and the French and Belgian foreign ministries need to both pressure and assist Kinshasa and CENI to discharge their duties responsibly. 

After decades of mismanagement and chronic conflict in Congo, this election presents the people with a chance to rebuild their country. With its vast natural and human resources, Congo has the potential to be a regional power, as it once was, providing stability and leadership in an area known for turmoil. But if the Congolese are robbed of a fair and honest say in their national politics, such potential will remain but an illusion.

(Photo: A child in Congo during the 2006 election. Courtesy Reuters.)

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  • MVEMBA PHEZO DIZOLELE is a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is serving with the Carter Center as an election monitor of Congo’s 2011 election. The views contained herein are his own.
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