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DR CONGO: No Hope for Free and Fair Elections

Zukiswa Zimela

JOHANNESBURG, Oct 21 2011 (IPS) - With six weeks to go before the presidential and parliamentary elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, civil society organisations say the elections will not be fair, as many doubt the ability of the country’s electoral authorities to ensure transparency.

The DRC is set to go to the polls on Nov. 28, in the country’s second democratic elections since 2006.

The Central African country of 71 million people was the scene of what has been called Africa’s World War – a conflict that saw the death of approximately five million people between 1998 and 2003.

However, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), committed to deepening democracy, protecting human rights and enhancing good governance in the region, says the DRC’s National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) has not yet released information that will be vital to ensuring a credible election.

Specifically, there are still insufficient details regarding the location of polling stations and the plan for how these will be made secure for both voters and ballot boxes.

OSISA also says the electoral commission has not said anything about the provision of election monitors and observers, both from the international community and local civic actors, how the results will be tallied, or the process by which ballot boxes will be transported to the vote counting centres.

Several irregularities, including a spike in the number of people on the voter rolls, have caused members of the opposition to protest the legitimacy of the elections.

Leonnie Kandolo, founder of Cadre Permanent de Concentration des Femmes Congolese, a network of women’s organisations in the DRC, says after coming out of civil war the numbers should be down, not up.

“Why has the number increased because we are in a war? A lot of people have died. Now the number of voters has increased very much – and they have increased especially in the provinces that agree with the president,” she said at a briefing in Johannesburg on Thursday.

Kandolo said in 2006 almost 26 million people voted during the country’s first elections. This year the number stands at an estimated 32 million. The country’s constitution does not permit the military, police, foreigners or minors under the age of 18 to vote. But there is suspicion that some of them have been registered.

Jean Robert Efalema, deputy director of the Congolese Media Observatory, a self-regulatory media body which investigates public complaints about press coverage in the DRC, says that when civil society asked the government to clean up the system, it refused.

OSISA says the police also appear to be using excessive force, including live ammunition to manage political demonstrations. Efalema says the ruling party is using young people to try and sabotage the opposition.

“They loot the offices of the opposition parties and they have burnt the opposition party television station,” he said.

Efalema added that both opposition and civil society suspect that the CENI is not independent and is supporting the people in power.

Jonas Tshiombela Kabiena, founder of a national network of 200 associations called “The New Civil Society on the Congo”, says the composition of CENI disregards civil society organisations. The board of the electoral commission consists of four representatives from the governing party and three from the opposition.

“They tried to push civil society organisations to align themselves with one or the other camp, but this is not the case – we are independent and we are outside; our presence is very critical for greater transparency in this process,” he said.

As a post-conflict country, the DRC needs the elections to be fair. Several areas in the eastern part of the country are still at war. Kabiena says there are fears that if the elections go ahead with the current insufficient measures in place, the country could be plunged back into civil war.

“We are very, very afraid to go back to a cycle of violence; if the election goes ahead there will be cries of illegitimacy and we don’t want to go back to that kind of thing,” he added.

The 2006 presidential and parliamentary elections were monitored by many international observers to ensure that the elections were free and fair. Efalema says the international community needs to be involved with these elections as well.

“We are launching a cry of distress on behalf of the people of the Congo. We ask that governments not be distracted by what others are saying; we need help,” he said.

“It is the wish of the Congolese people for the international community to be there, to support free and fair elections,” he added.

Nick Elebe, programme manager in OSISA’s offices in the DRC, says it is time for the country to embrace democracy, and that it is important for CENI to deal properly with these elections and to ensure that they are free and fair.

“We have to make progress. These elections are an opportunity for the Congolese to prove that they now understand that they cannot go back to war and clash continuously any more, that now they have to build on new principles of good governance – and all of these principles start with having a free election.”

Despite the protests by the opposition and calls by civil society for them to be postponed, the elections are scheduled to take place on Nov. 28.

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