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Conflict and fraud dominate DRC poll fears

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Picture: John Wessels / AFP / Taken on December 12, 2023 – A woman walks under a election campaign banner for the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and leader of the Union of Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party, Felix Tshisekedi at popular Kintambo roundabout in Kinshasa.

By AFP

Difficulties are mounting ahead of elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo as conflict rages in the east, logistical problems remain unresolved and fears over fraud linger.

Some 44 million registered voters are set to cast ballots in the vast Central African nation on December 20 in concurrent presidential, parliamentary, provincial and municipal elections.

The sheer size of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is roughly the size of continental western Europe, means staging elections is a logistical nightmare.

The country of about 100 million people is also one of the poorest in the world, with very few roads, and the electoral commission, Ceni, is still struggling to distribute voting material.

About 100,000 people are standing in the four elections, including 22 for the presidential poll.

President Felix Tshisekedi, who came to power after a disputed election in 2018, is running for re-election.

Fraud remains a key concern ahead of next Wednesday’s vote. All the major opposition presidential candidates have urged vigilance. But concerns about the electoral roll also remain an issue, with opposition figures having unsuccessfully pushed for an audit.

Opposition politician Martin Fayulu has said he believes there are 10 million fictitious names on the roll. “We need to mobilise to stop this electoral parody,” he said.

Congolese political analyst Alain de Georges Shukrani said that “they think the roll has been tampered with, and there is very little confidence in the process”.

Late last month, in a move that has added to lingering suspicions about fairness, the EU cancelled its election observation mission to the DRC after it failed to receive permits to use satellite equipment.

Voting in the DRC will also take place as conflict rages in the east which has been plagued by armed groups for more than three decades. One such group, the M23 – allegedly backed by neighbouring Rwanda – has captured swathes of territory in the volatile region.

According to the authorities, voting cannot take place in two territories of the province of North Kivu, Rutshuru and Masisi, which are in the grip of the conflict with the M23 fighters.

And this week, the electoral commission announced that those displaced by the conflict will also not be able to vote.

After two years of armed confrontation, more than a million people have been displaced, according to figures published at the end of last month by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), many of whom have taken refuge in camps around Goma, the provincial capital.

The conflict is accentuating the DRC’s traditional divide between east and west. The campaign period has seen violence. One person was killed during clashes at a recent rally, and another six were killed during a stampede at a rally for the president.

Technical problems, nevertheless, continue to be a pressing concern.

Ceni is racing to deploy voting machines across the country. And an unidentified number of voter cards have faded to illegibility because they were printed on cheap paper. Many need to be replaced.

Last week, a letter from the Ceni to the presidency asking for four planes and 10 helicopters to transport voting material leaked online, spurring fears about the ability to hold the election on time.

Ceni president Denis Kadima, interviewed later on local radio, sought to play down concerns: “I remain optimistic … registered voters are set to cast ballots,” he said.

In the absence of credible polling, many are hesitant to make firm predictions about the results. But with the opposition split,

Tshisekedi is viewed as standing the best chance of winning.

The presidential poll is a single-round vote, so a single opposition candidate would stand the best chance of overcoming the incumbent’s advantage. It is unlikely such a candidate will emerge so soon before the vote.

The major opposition figures standing for election are Moise Katumbi, a wealthy magnate and former provincial governor; Martin Fayulu, an ex-oil executive who says he was the true winner of the 2018 election; and Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with rape victims. – AFP