Political culture, strong institutions and electoral transition in the Democratic Republic of Congo

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Monte McMurchy underscores the importance of meaningful civic engagement for a vibrant and meaningful democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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With over a year having passed since his mandate expired, President Joseph Kabila’s obstruction of the electoral process has resulted in constant delays of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) national elections. The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) leadership, lacking real independence from the executive, has enabled this electoral delay resulting in no National Election until at least December 2018. CENI continues to cite delays to the voter registration process and funding for the election as key barriers to holding prompt elections.

However, equally important, but often overlooked, I argue that for meaningful elections going forward it is integral that voter education be prioritized. To enable objective voter education that empowers citizens to fully exercise their electoral rights, the encumbered CENI leadership must be replaced. An independent, professional and competent CENI team is a must if a credible national election is to be possible.

However, the past year has shown that the DRC people’s choice is not compatible with the interests of the various DRC elites. For that reason, elites will disrupt the electoral process to protect their interests. In his first press conference in over five years on 26 January, President Joseph Kabila reaffirmed the election timetable and refuted claims of violent repression by state security forces at protests. This will do little to allay fears of an indefinite postponement of the election as well as of restore credibility in the electoral institutions.

Attempts to provide civic electoral education has so far been lacking. Currently, CENI is only providing limited civic electoral education, further disenfranchising large segments of an already alienated population. The country’s majority youthful – and hopeful – population, currently suffering from the current economic crisis and extreme levels of unemployment, constitute a social and political governance ‘time bomb’. If current trends continue and they are excluded from participation in the electoral process, the integrity of any election will be eroded.

Yet, there is potential. The DRC students I observe conducting civic educational seminars at the University I am associated with are enthusiastic, articulate and respectful of their audience. However, the message is not reaching the hearts and minds of many citizens I have witnessed, who seem to passively listen to these seminars. I believe this is because insufficient resources have been provided to educate the youth. Civic education and youth engagement has been continually under-funded, despite the vast resources afforded to government. Put differently, the DRC executive leadership just does not prioritise it.

Unfortunately, changes to political culture are slow, and in the current precarious political impasse, we simply do not have the luxury of time to shape the national consciousness. Instead, what is needed is a critical civic/electoral mass to create a “tipping point” in this electoral cycle.

DRC National Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are beginning to provide the essential components of electoral oversight, as these DRC CSO’s will be intrinsic in being part of the complete electoral cycle. Conférence Episcopale Nationale du Congo (CENCO) led by the Catholic Church has now elected to speak truth to power, and communicate to the DRC political elite that the old ways of governing under a veil of rent seeking and corrupt practices is over. Highly influential, they are demonstrating a unique capacity to organise and mobilise citizens. Over the coming months, they have the potential to play a transformative role.

As well as being incredibly high stakes given that the DRC has never experienced a peaceful transition of power, the elections will also define the social contract between government and citizen, as well as the path forward. CSOs, together with an empowered and independent electoral commission, must urgently play a role in voter engagement and education. Democracy is not simply about institutions and processes, and the current governance crisis underscores the importance of meaningful civic engagement for a vibrant and meaningful democracy.

Monte McMurchy is Rector at the American Christian Liberal Arts University Congo in Kinshasa, DRC.

 

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