The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) defied all man-made and natural disincentives to go to the polls on 28 November 2011 to elect a new President and members of the country’s 500-seat National Assembly. As predicted, logistical challenges and growing intolerance on the part of contenders and their supporters had a negative impact on the conduct of the vote in almost all the 11 provinces of the DRC. Besides the shortage of voting material that forced the electoral commission to extend the ballot by two days in some parts of the country, incidents of violent confrontations, arson attacks on polling stations, as well as intercepted attempts to stuff ballot boxes with pre-marked papers are also reported to have marred the DRC’s second post-transition general elections. Needless to say, these irregularities have to some extent compromised the quality of the ballot and risk exposing the outcomes to severe contestation.
Looking beyond what, by most accounts, appears to have been a chaotic poll, to a consideration of its implications for the quest for an open and democratic society in the DRC, one heartening development cannot be overlooked – the vigilance displayed by the Congolese populace. The November 2011 elections were observed by much fewer international monitors than was the case in the first transitional elections in 2006. Coupled with the weak resource base of political parties and local civil society groupings, this reduced international presence had, prior to the polls, prompted fears that the vote in most parts of the vast country would unfold virtually unmonitored.
What transpired on Election Day, however, bore little of these concerns but instead points to an emerging trend in the DRC’s democratic project that does not only deserve commendation, but more importantly, should be jealously guarded and nurtured. Rather than confine themselves to the role of passive vote-casters, a significant portion of the Congolese electorate joined forces with poorly resourced political party witnesses and local civil society monitors to keep a close watch over the vote and assure the sanctity of the collective will of the Congolese people, as expressed through the ballot.
Hope on the horizon for the DRC’s democracy: A young boy plays his part by checking the accuracy of preliminary results outside a voting station in Matadi, Bas-Congo Province (Source: Radio Okapi).
Although taken to extremes in some instances, this vigilance, which was instrumental in exposing and intercepting electoral fraud, most probably points to a growing consciousness on the part of the Congolese people that standing on the side-lines would not bring about the much needed socio-political and economic transformation in the country. In a polity where both the ruling coalition and the opposition have steadfastly displayed an aversion to the ideals of a democratic and open system of governance, an engaged citizenry is priceless, and such indications of an active citizenship represent a significant step in the right direction as far as the DRC’s democratic project is concerned.
It would, however, be disappointing if the observed political participation is confined to Election Day, and the Congolese populace retreats from the political space once the votes have been tallied and the results proclaimed. Just as they have come to appreciate the need to be custodians of the integrity of the country’s polls, the people of the DRC must also take cognizance of the fact that democracy cannot be built exclusively at the ballots. It is a daily struggle that should find expression in the conscious and determined efforts of all citizens, individually or collectively, to become fully seized of political developments between polls and ensure that the actions of politicians strengthen rather than undermine the country’s institutions.
Thus, whatever the results of the November 2011 elections would be, the true measure of their democratic value will only be seen in the extent to which Congolese are able and willing to translate their electoral vigilance into a sustained and active involvement in subsequent political processes in the country. This is the only way to guarantee that the wishes of the people, as expressed through the ballot, do not end up being subordinated to the parochial interests of politicians. For the DRC’s civil society sector and the host of foreign organizations working to strengthen democracy in the country, now is the time to conceive and design appropriate programmes to nurture and harness what appears to be a growing popular interest in the country’s political affairs.