BY ALBERT KASANDA
On Sunday December 31 2023, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) announced the preliminary results of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s presidential election held on 20 December.
The incumbent president, Félix Tshisékédi, was declared the winner with 73.34% of the votes cast, while Moise Katumbi was credited with 18.03% and Martin Fayulu with 5.33%.
[He was inaugurated on January 20]
There have been calls to cancel the elections by opposition candidates who present themselves as the victims of a plot hatched between the electoral commission and the [incumbent] president. However, the way in which this dispute is framed overlooks their own campaign mistakes and the impact these had on the vote. An examination of the campaign strategies of each of the three main candidates would provide fresh insights into the debate surrounding Tshisékédi’s overwhelming support.
Two sides competed in the presidential election: the opposition and the incumbent majority. The opposition made a forceful commitment for inclusive, transparent and peaceful elections conducted in accordance with the deadlines set by the constitution. But internal divisions within the opposition became apparent. The failure of the Pretoria talks to designate a common candidate was a telling example.
Its bid for power in disarray, the opposition fragmented its votes and compromised its chances of success in a single-round ballot. In this type of election, every vote won or lost counts enormously. The proliferation of opposition candidates weakens the opposition, potentially favouring the incumbent.
Moise Katumbi has financial power, which he did not hesitate to flaunt. But he had challenges in running his campaign. He failed to establish an effective socio-political network in the country. The lack of influential local connections capable of getting his message across to the grassroots level and crafting an image of unity proved to be a major flaw.
His allies also proved to be ineffective. These included Matata Ponyo, a former prime minister of Joseph Kabila; Franck Diongo, MP and president of the Lumumbist Progressive Movement; Seth Kikuni, businessman and president of Piste pour l’Emergence party; and Delly Sessanga, MP and president of the Envol political party.
The secessionist rhetoric exemplified by Christian Mwando Simba, from Katanga province, undermined his cause in a country that has grappled with foreign aggression for three decades. Patriotism prevailed over the secessionist threat. His campaign’s main theme, centred on criticising President Tshisekedi, proved to be highly unproductive.
An unsuccessful candidate in the 2018 presidential election, Martin Fayulu faced another setback in 2023.
Fayulu had not prepared his supporters for a real political comeback. During this latest campaign, he was conspicuous for his disastrous political improvisation. The political party he heads, Engagement for Citizenship and Development (Ecidé), decided not to take part in the December 2023 elections, which he criticised as lacking transparency. As a result, Ecidé members were instructed not to submit their candidatures for national or even provincial seats. Ignoring this instruction, Fayulu was the only member of his party to submit his candidacy for the presidential election.
He perceived his decision as a way of meeting the Lamuka platform demands. Lamuka had supported him in the 2018 presidential election. However, Fayulu underestimated the transformation of the platform since 2018. Many of his allies and key supporters at the time, including Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moise Katumbi, had switched sides to protect their own vested interests. So Fayulu ventured alone into an exhausting and risky political battle. This paradox provides insight into his defeat and downfall as opposition leader.
Educated by his long experience of political struggle, Tshisekedi had prepared his campaign meticulously.
As soon as he was freed from the stranglehold of Joseph Kabila’s Common Front for Congo, with whom he had signed an agreement to form a parliamentary majority and govern together, Tshisekedi cast a wide net. He recruited major political figures and many defectors from the Common Front for Congo. He brought them all under the political banner of the ruling coalition, the Sacred Union of the Nation. The involvement of these players in his campaign provided him with a broad territorial network and a foothold in various regions of the country.
Playing on patriotic sentiments, Tshisekedi won backing from the Congolese for condemning the aggression of the DRC by Rwanda through armed groups despite the somewhat mixed record of his first term. He did not sugarcoat the challenges and achievements during his initial term. Instead, Tshisekedi presented the people with a choice between building on the progress made, such as constructing hospitals and roads, free primary education, the initiation of universal health coverage, and so on, and the arduous task of starting all over again from scratch. The people responded through the ballot box.
As the organiser of the electoral process, CENI had to contend with numerous challenges. These included adherence to the electoral timetable, the inclusion and equal treatment of candidates, transparency, logistics and the security of the electoral system.
Election observation missions authorised for this election praised the efforts of the commission. Their reports not only highlighted the recognised operational challenges and occasional acts of incivility but also concurred on the temporary ranking of candidates for the presidential position, with Tshisekedi, in the lead.
While deploring confirmed acts of incivility, these missions made various recommendations for enhancing the electoral process. However, they all downplayed the impact of the observed irregularities on the ranking of the candidates.
It is to be feared that those refusing legal avenues in favour of street protests may be undermining the ongoing democratic transition. Democracy is a long-term process that evolves in fits and starts. Each nation lays the foundations as its history unfolds.
Some of the contenders, including Constant Mutamba and Noël Tshianyi Muadiamvita, bowed to the provisional verdict of the electoral commission and congratulated the declared winner. Of course, another group of opponents, including Katumbi, Fayulu and Kikuni, are contesting the result, describing it as fraudulent. They are also refusing to go before the courts and tribunals responsible for post-election disputes to assert their rights. This refusal is based on the idea that the Constitutional Court is in the pay of the outgoing regime, or even worse, under the control of Tshisekedi’s ethnic group.
In any case, it is to be feared that those refusing legal avenues in favour of street protests may be undermining the ongoing democratic transition. Democracy is a long-term process that evolves in fits and starts. Each nation lays the foundations as its history unfolds.
The DRC is still in its infancy. Learning from mistakes and looking resolutely to the future, in a constructive spirit, would be the best option. Critical vigilance is needed to prevent further manipulation.
Albert Kasanda is a researcher in Political Philosophy and social sciences, Center of Global studies, Institutes of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences
This article was first published by The Conversation