Skip to main content

A  prospective 44 million registered voters will have an opportunity to cast their ballot in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) presidential, legislative, provincial and municipal election on 20 December. The DRC is Africa’s second largest country in terms of land mass. The country’s size and infrastructural challenges make navigating the space between its borders – two thirds the size of Western Europe – a mammoth task under the best of circumstances. Presidential hopefuls, including the incumbent President Félix Tshisekedi, have been criss-crossing the country seeking to woo voters across its 26 provinces ahead of a hotly contested election. 

The European Union on 29 November announced via a statement that it was cancelling its election observer mission due to security concerns. This underscores the volatile security situation in the country, particularly in the east where the armed groups such as the Mouvement du 23 mars (M23) operate freely. More than 500,000 people are estimated to have fled the violence during the last three months. These, and other internally displaced persons, will not have an opportunity to participate in an election whose result will have an impact on their security and prospective livelihoods.

Narrowing focus

The election commission confirmed the registration of 26 presidential hopefuls, including two female candidates at the start of November. In the past few weeks, four relatively well-known candidates – former Prime Minister (2012-2016) Augustin Matata Ponyo, Seth Kikuni, Franck Diongo and Delly Sesanga – have joined forces and backed one of the leading opposition figures, former governor of Katanga Province (2007-2015) Moise Katumbi. They have formally withdrawn from the race and will be backing the urbane former governor. This domino effect comes after a closed-door opposition meeting held in Pretoria, during which representatives of the presidential candidates wrestled with the complexity of usurping power from the incumbent.

22 presidential candidates remain, of which Tshisekedi is the front-runner with Katumbi and long-running opposition leader Martin Fayulu vying for the top position. Fayulu is believed by most to have won the fiercely contested 2018 election. It was a tight result that saw Tshisekedi win 38.56% of the vote while Fayulu captured 34.82%. Fayulu was chosen by seven opposition leaders to serve as the joint presidential candidate in 2018. He will be looking to repeat that this year and take some of the pep from Katumbi’s step as election day grows closer.

This time around, Tshisekedi has all the benefits of incumbency. He also had a stronger than anticipated first term in office despite the persistent security challenges in the east. He ushered the DRC into the East African Community (EAC) in 2022, has capably chaired the Southern African Development Community (SADC) since 2022 and warmed relations with international trading partners such as the US. This bodes well for the country’s short-to-medium term investment outlook, particularly in mining; renewable energy; sustainable agriculture; forestry; and  biodiversity management and conservation.

Examining the detail

All eyes will be on the presidential race but the legislative race is as equally important. The Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Démocratie (PPRD), established by former president Joseph Kabila (2001-2019) won the majority of seats in the National Assembly in 2018. This was an important development that helped Kabila retain a foothold in national politics despite stepping away from the presidency. However, the party has been consistently loosing ground over the years. A strong showing from opposition parties and a fracturing of the Kabila affiliated Front commun pour le Congo (FCPC) alliance of which PPRD is a member could upset the delicate balance in the legislature and grant Tshisekedi a little more room to manoeuvre during his second term.

The conduct of  election commission – Commission Électorale Nationale Indépendante (CENI) – will face close scrutiny from regional and international election observers. Local civil society organisations have already criticised it for not publishing the voters’ roll at all polling stations by 5 December. The prompt distribution of ballot papers, adherence to the correct opening and closing times of polling stations, and efficient management of electronic voting machines are some examples of what election observers will focus on before and during the election day. The CENI was strongly criticised for closing over 1,000 polling stations early in Kinshasa  in 2018. Election observers and civil society groups will be closely watching for this, and other forms of performative ineptitude that could mask attempts at vote rigging.

Protecting the vote

Bellicose rhetoric and pointed accusations have characterised worsening Congolese-Rwanda bilateral relations. The EAC had deployed troops in the contested eastern region in November 2022 but began withdrawing its troops earlier this month after the DRC deemed it to be ineffective. In November, the DRC opted not to renew its mandate past 8 December. Burundi was the first country in the regional bloc to offer troops as early as April 2022. It is also the only EAC member that escaped the DRC’s scathing criticism of the efficacy of the east African peace keeping mission. Questions remain about the wisdom of the decision not to renew the peacekeeping troops’ mandate so close to the election. Calm in the east is the least that one expects as the election draws near. 

There is a credible risk of localised politically motivated violence, incidents of voter intimidation, and harassment aimed to stifle the turnout in certain constituencies. Ituri, North and South Kivu provinces have been fraught with insecurity for several years, which will make conducting a credible poll incredibly challenging. Consequently, the results from this region are unlikely to be representative of the will of those who remain in the area and /or those who have been forced to relocate due to persistent instability. More recently the Greater Katanga region, Mai-Ndombe and Tshopo provinces have come into the spotlight due to their deteriorating security environment. These areas, as well as some parts of Kinshasa, may become flashpoints during and in the aftermath of the poll.

To the winner go the spoils

We anticipate some voting irregularities and localised unrest in known hot spots. Companies with staff and physical assets will be anticipating various scenarios and we expect all who prioritise duty of care to have adequate security protocols in place, including evacuation plans. Tshisekedi is highly likely to win re-election with a slightly larger percentage of the vote but he is not expected to move past 55%. He will be eager to have a stronger showing to dispel a repeat of headlines questioning his claim to the country’s highest office.

Tshisekedi’s second term is expected to be characterised with more of the same. Taking his first term in office into account, this is not necessarily a bad thing for the DRC. It will allow the country to build in momentum on multiple fronts – strengthening regional relationships; looking for opportunities to accelerate regional integration; and leveraging foreign interest in critical minerals and agriculture to grow primary and secondary industries. 

The security situation in the east will remain a thorn in his side that he is unlikely to solve during his next five-year term. The best-case scenario for this timeframe may be a de-escalation in tensions with Rwanda and a stabilisation of the security environment to allow for greater humanitarian relief to displaced and disaffected communities. Tshisekedi demonstrated in his first term that his ambitions are greater than being the Mayor of Kinshasa. If he wins a second term, he may just have an opportunity to crystalise his legacy as a catalytic statesman.