The Sacred Union of the Nation (SUN), the ruling coalition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), has won governorship elections in 11 of the 14 provinces, according to results published by the state-run television.
In the elections held last Friday, the SUN made a clean sweep, according to the country’s national broadcaster Congolese National Radio and Television (RTNC). Former President Joseph Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) won one seat – Maniema in the eastern region. Three of the newly elected officials are women.
The second round of elections is expected to take place early next week in the Kongo Central and Tshopo provinces to decide between the two candidates who came first, announced the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI).
Governors of 14 of the country’s 24 provinces, were dismissed by the local assemblies, accusing them of various misdeeds – from mismanagement of provincial resources to incompetence.
They were mostly members of the FCC, whose alliance with President Felix Tshisekedi ended in December 2020. The dismissal of the governors was seen as revenge after they joined the SUN in what has been an ongoing power play between the president and his predecessor, allies turned foes.
A dress rehearsal
The governorship polls are seen as a dress rehearsal ahead of the high-stakes presidential polls in the Central African state, scheduled for December 2023.
The DRC, one of the world’s richest countries on paper, is one of its poorest in reality despite an assortment of mineral resources. For decades, its mines, borders and adjourning areas have been the sites of long-running conflicts masterminded by armed groups and dissidents.
Locals routinely cry about what they say is institutionalised corruption that has triggered pervasive poverty in this country of an estimated 90 million people. According to the World Bank, one in six people living in extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa is in the DRC.
Its economy has also been affected by complications arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and, more recently, the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And locals have been decrying government incompetency in providing cushions.
Little wonder then that elections have come to be gravely important.
But observers and pundits say the provincial elections at the weekend were tainted by irregularities that could reoccur on a grander scale next year.
Kinshasa-based political analyst and journalist Alain Uaykani said there were “candidates [who] were bribed to stand in the elections by provincial MPs who had not been paid by the national government for a long time”.
“The gubernatorial elections have been characterised by votes motivated by corruption or political injunctions,” added Stewart Muhindo, Goma-based researcher and activist with civil society organisation LUCHA.
“The fact that women have been elected is excellent news for the promotion of equality in our country,” he said. “But the real good news that can truly be expected of these women governors will be to loyally serve the citizens of their respective provinces”.
In a statement issued a few hours after the first round in Kongo-Centrale province, Diomi Ndongala, one of the unsuccessful candidates openly called for the annulment of the result.
According to him, several local MPs received hundreds of thousands of dollars as a condition to participate in the governor’s vote. “Where is the future of these people when elections are tainted with such ignominy?” Ndongala said during a press conference on May 8. “They [politicians] have bought the conscience …to colonise this province and bring this province under the control of the dark forces.”
Same names, same problems
Ahead of the 2023 election, some contenders have already signified their intention to displace President Tshisekedi who is seeking a second term but the pace of campaigning remains slow as political permutations continue.
Last week, former Prime Minister Augustin Matata announced that he will run for the presidency. Other heavyweights such as Martin Fayulu and former Katanga province governor, Moise Katumbi, are also expected to declare presidential bids in the coming weeks.
Prominent civil society leaders say the political process could be a litmus test of democracy in the DRC, a country where there has been no peaceful civilian-civilian transition since independence from Belgium in June 1960.
In early 2019, Tshisekedi, son of longtime opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, was declared the winner over Martin Fayulu in a hotly contested election, widely believed to have been subverted by Kabila.
The younger Tshisekedi had been favoured for the reins by his predecessor whose 19-year stint in office began in 2001 after the assassination of his father who had also been president.
International observers pointed out vote-buying, voter intimidation and other irregularities; the influential Catholic Church said the result announced by CENI did not match data collated by its own election monitors.
Fayulu also labelled the decision to award his opponent victory as an “electoral coup”.
In 2020, Tshisekedi ended his party’s coalition with Kabila’s saying it was restricting him from implementing a number of programmes, including the appointment of judges of the Constitutional Court, and “meeting the expectations of Congolese”.
It was seen as a coming-of-age decision for a man looking to whittle down the influence of his predecessor and increase his own. And now, there are concerns that the president and his supporters will do anything to consolidate power.
The nomination of Denis Kadima to the position of CENI chairperson, for instance, was met with anger by the Catholic Church, Protestant and opposition legislators because he was perceived to be seen as having close ties to Tshisekedi.
In October 2021, police fired tear gas on thousands of protesters marching in the streets of the capital, Kinshasa, to demand a neutral electoral commission and those sentiments are still alive.
“For the 2023 elections, I am pessimistic,” said Muhindo. “I think there will be fraud, that the power in place will not be elected but will cheat. Félix Tshisekedi could use his influence on the electoral commission, the justice system and the security services to defraud and impose himself as the winner,” he added.