DRC polls put democracy to the test

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Magreth Nunuhe

Windhoek – Southern Africa’s democracy goes under the spotlight this Sunday, 23 December, as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) heads to the polls amid continued tensions, violence and concerns about election rigging, as the central African country will for the first time use electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the hope of a smooth democratic power transition.

Just about 10 days ago, a suspicious fire reportedly burned down 7,000 voting machines at an electoral commission warehouse in the capital of Kinshasa, stoking further suspicion and accusations that the incumbent President Joseph Kabila may undermine the democratic process given the overdue presidential, legislative, regional and local elections, which have been delayed since 2016.

The DRC was scheduled to hold general elections on 27 November 2016 to find a successor to Kabila, who had served his two full terms with the final term having expired on 20 December 2016.

Elections were delayed until the end of December 2017, but never took place as scheduled – a situation which has agitated the opposition to reject and demand for the immediate removal of Kabila.

Repeated election delays brewed frustration and protests, which led to deadly counteraction by military forces, which saw dozens of people killed in 2016 in protests against Kabila’s refusal to step down at the end of his term.

Kabila succeeded his father Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001.

There are over 400 political parties in the DRC, most of them located in Kinshasa, with an opposition heavily fractured and unable to unite under a single candidate who can mount a serious and effective campaign against the incumbent. 

Kabila was recently quoted in the UK-based media insisting that he would leave office following the landmark elections on Sunday, although he maintained that he had no plans to leave politics in its entirety.

Critics believe that even if Kabila hands over power, his choice for president, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, would not bring any change despite the power transition in the ruling party.

Chief Executive Officer of the Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN), Theo Mujoro, who is in that country as part of the Electoral Commissions Forum of Southern African Development Community Countries Observer Mission, said the part of Kinshasa where he is based has been relatively calm as people go about their normal lives.

“I have been in Kinshasa for a few days. DRC is a vast country - the size of Western Europe with a population of more than 80 million ‑ but things look fine where I am,” he said.

Mujoro expressed interest in the voting technology being used for the upcoming elections in the DRC - using voting technology that combines both paper trail and VVPAT functionalities.

“I am excited to see how their machines will perform,” he said.

A VVPAT is an independent verification system for voting machines designed to allow voters to verify that their vote was cast correctly, to detect possible election fraud or malfunction, and to provide a means to audit the stored electronic results.

The unit provides feedback to voters using EVMs for voting and functions as an independent system, which allows voters to verify that their votes are cast as intended.

It also serves as an additional barrier to changing or destroying votes.

The VVPAT machines were used along the EVMs in the Himachal Pradesh state of India in November, amid controversy over alleged tampering of EVMs in the Assembly Elections this year.

Namibia was the first African nation to use EVMs in its 2014 national and presidential elections. But the EVMs were heavily criticised, especially by opposition parties regarding their reliability because they did not produce a verifiable paper trail.

The EVM, coupled with a voter registration kit (VRK), is an advanced biometric information system that produces an identification document type voter cards, which contain a variety of security features and uses biometric aspects to capture data for each person at the registration venue, which include fingerprints, a photo and personal information in text format.

In the DRC, the opposition parties have also raised similar suspicions of possible rigging of elections with the use of voting machines.

The Guardian reported that the opposition parties raised eyebrows over the use of voting machines, saying that it was impractical in a huge country with limited transport infrastructure and electricity, which could open the way to widespread fraud.

About 100,000 machines will be distributed across the country.

But the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) insists that 75% of the population will know how to use this e-voting machine by the time of elections, which could save a lot of time as opposed to a paper register where voters will have to look up their names before casting a ballot.

CENI has said that the election will go forward as planned.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) says the DRC elections was “an expression of the sovereignty of the people and government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo”, adding that it constituted a historic opportunity for the first democratic and peaceful transfer of power, as well consolidation of stability in the country and the creation of the conditions for its development.

However, the UNSC raised concerns about recent incidences of violence in election campaigns, some of which resulted in loss of life and significant damage to infrastructure.

“The members of the Security Council urged all parties to continue to reject violence of any kind, exercise maximum restraint in their actions and statements by refraining from provocations such as violence and violent speeches and to address their differences peacefully.

The Southern African Development Community also expressed its solidarity with the DRC ahead of the elections.

Namibian President Hage Geingob, who is the SADC Chairperson, called on all political players to uphold the freedom of expression, assembly and unhindered campaigning. He further urged political party leaders, the civil society, and other players to promote a culture of tolerance and restraint in line with its revised principles and guidelines governing democratic elections.

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