The DRC wants stability. Will this week’s election deliver?
On Wednesday, voters in the vast heart of central Africa go to the polls in just the fourth election since the Democratic Republic of Congo began transitioning to democracy 20 years ago. Incumbent President Félix Tshisekedi looks likely to beat the crowded opposition, but he faces a severe crisis of insecurity in the mineral-rich northeast, while folks in the more secure west and south struggle to get ahead against ubiquitous corruption and lack of resources.
But for all its problems, Congo is brimming with potential. It is the world’s No. 3 copper producer and plays a crucial role in the green energy economy as a source of cobalt, tantalum, and tungsten. It is home to some of the last pristine rainforests on the planet and cooperates with Brazil and Indonesia in efforts to bolster this crucial resource in the fight against climate change. Plus, Congo is an incredibly young country, with a median age of just 16. Its population is projected to reach 200 million people by 2050, the majority of whom will be fluent in a global language, French.
So who are the main contenders to take on the difficult task of running the DRC?
- Félix Tshisekedi took power in the country's first-ever peaceful democratic transition in 2019 – and even then previous President Joseph Kabila remained a thorn in Tshisekedi’s side via his control of the legislature (he’s still a senator-for-life). Félix is the son of venerated pro-democracy leader Étienne Tshisekedi, who opposed both the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko and the regimes of Kabila and his father. Polling is scarce in the DRC, but US-based firm Geopoll, which specializes in African elections, put Tshisekedi’s support at 55%, which ought to be plenty to overcome the divided opposition.
- Martin Fayulu, Tshisekedi’s main rival in the 2018 election — which he claims, with some evidence, was fraudulently stolen from him — is back on the campaign trail, doubling down on anti-corruption pledges. He’s promising not to take a cent in salary (as a former ExxonMobil exec, he can afford it) and reinvest that money in social programs.
- Moïse Katumbi is the governor of Katanga province and one of the richest men in the DRC. His efforts to expand and formalize copper production, develop agriculture, and build infrastructure in the province have led to long-term economic growth, which he says he can bring to the Congo as a whole.
- Denis Mukwege is a gynecologist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for his work helping women in the conflict-ridden Northeast who had suffered sexual violence. He is the only leading candidate from the center of the conflict zone and enjoys national admiration for his work, but he has no political experience.
In addition to these four, over a dozen more candidates are running for president, but none are expected to net strong results.
Who’s likely to take office in January?
Tshisekedi looks strong, but it’s hard to know who will come out on top – and it’s not just because of a lack of polling. Joseph Mulala Nguramo, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Freedom and Prosperity Center and Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said the lack of transparency around vote counting could lead to a situation where multiple candidates declare victory on Wednesday.
“That would put the country into one of the worst crises we have seen in our history,” he says. “Is it possible the candidates will reach out to their voting bases and call for violence? I like to think we won’t go there because the country won’t survive.”
Independent observers have already raised the alarm that the government’s preparations are inadequate to deliver a free and fair election, and Tshisekedi’s rivals have complained he is using government powers to impede their campaigns.
But Ben Shepherd, who specializes in DRC politics at Chatham House, said that voters’ sophisticated understanding of how the system works – corrupt as it is – could prevent the worst scenarios.
“Congolese voters don’t have a great deal of faith that anyone with political aspirations is doing it for the right reasons,” he says. If rival candidates call for demonstrations in Kinshasa, voters “know they could tear the city apart, but that it probably wouldn’t change a great deal.”
And it is important to note that Tshisekedi has delivered some progress on key issues. The economy has grown strongly under him — though corruption prevents most of the benefits from reaching ordinary folks — and the conflict in the Northeast has thus far been contained, rather than spiraling into a regional war as in 1996 and 1998.
Challenges for the winner
The immediate problem for whoever wins will be in control of the legislature. No candidate is likely to earn a parliamentary majority, says Nguramo. They also face six more rounds of local elections through 2024, meaning a clear picture of the political landscape might not emerge for months.
The armed conflict in the Northeast remains a major risk, and Tshisekedi’s efforts to suppress the rebels with help from the United Nations and the East African Community regional bloc appear to be on the rocks. Many locals in the Kivu provinces and Ituri resent the foreign troops for failing to keep them safe, and Tshisekedi has asked both the UN and EAC to leave.
“Taking a hard line with the UN particularly plays very well and touches a nerve of the Congolese population, a sense of being abandoned by the world, which isn’t entirely untrue,” says Shepherd, adding that Tshisekedi’s frustration that EAC troops did not take the offensive against the rebels led to the breakdown.
Long term, both Nguramo and Shepherd believe Kinshasa needs to improve its engagement with the wider world and accentuate the progress it has made. The perception of the DRC as a hopeless “heart of darkness” unfairly colors the world’s vision and impedes necessary investment and support.
In a country where powerful individuals have helped themselves to tens of billions of dollars of public money, Nguramo says the DRC will not truly thrive until it has expunged its culture of bribery and embezzlement. If you’re an ordinary person, he adds, “you wake up in the morning and don’t know where your next meal will come from. You don’t know how to bring your kids to school. How many schools could you build [with the money lost to corruption]? How many hospitals, how many roads?”