After two years of delays, a presidential election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is finally here. For the first time in two decades, a Congolese leader whose last name isn't Kabila will assume office in Kinshasa — officially, at least. Beneath the surface, however, the Kabila system is in the pole position to remain in power as the longtime president, Joseph Kabila, attempts to pass the baton to a handpicked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. But how the election proceeds — and, more importantly, the regional and international reaction to its aftermath — will set the pace for the country's future stability.
The mineral-rich Democratic Republic of the Congo will finally hold long-delayed elections on Dec. 23, but the country has never managed to hold a peaceful transfer of power and that reality will weigh heavily on the polls. As the election approaches, so too does the threat of violence and instability, both of which will pose a challenge to regional and international powers alike.
The Coming Storm
Since Kabila's father, Laurent, served as president in the late 1990s, the Kabila clan and its allies have built a lucrative financial and political empire spanning the entire country. As millions of Congolese head to the polls on Dec. 23, these massive and entrenched interests will be put at risk. Indeed, while the younger Kabila bowed to pressure to avoid running for a controversial new term of office, his ruling coalition named Shadary, a former interior minister and clear Kabila loyalist, as its candidate during August in a gambit to perpetuate the son's hold on power from the shadows.
The Kabila camp may have taken a risk in choosing the relatively unknown Shadary, but it soon received a boost from the political opposition: In mid-November, less than 48 hours after striking a historic agreement to rally behind a single candidate, two key opposition figures backed out of the deal, subsequently choosing to run individually. With the opposition divided, Kabila's drive to ensure Shadary's election has become much easier.
Nevertheless, Shadary remains weak at the national level. What's more, Kabila can ill afford to lose his de facto grip over the country given the huge stakes involved. With this in mind, Kabila will oversee a tightly controlled election to ensure Shadary's success. To do so, Congolese authorities will largely limit the participation of international election observers to those from organizations like the African Union and the Economic Community of Central African States, which have weaker standards than the European Union. Second, Kinshasa is likely to take advantage of the problems inherent in the voting system. Citizens will cast ballots using electronic voting machines — although that may prove problematic, given the possibility of power outages in the sprawling country. In addition, the electronic voting system is extremely vulnerable to tampering; the machines have USB ports that offer easy access to anyone wishing to alter results. Third, officials could simply attempt to rig the election. For that, they might look no further than the election in 2011, when the opposition lodged serious allegations of vote-fixing.
But beyond the problems with the polls, the opposition has another challenge if it wishes to overcome the Kabila system: state institutions, which are beholden to Kabila. If the opposition wishes to challenge any election irregularities, it is likely to get little assistance from the military, security apparatus or judicial system, which all remain under Kabila's sway. Given the likelihood of a rigged election and the opposition's limited sources for help, the post-election outlook would appear bleak. Opposition supporters could pour into the street in the hours after the polls close, and Kinshasa is likely to respond with crackdowns and deadly violence.
The Globe's Likely Response
In such a situation, the response of the United States, European Union, China and others will be key to determining the country's future stability and interactions with the rest of the world. In the runup to the polls, Brussels has already renewed sanctions on Shadary and 13 other senior Congolese officials, signaling its intent to maintain pressure on Kinshasa. But if the election is flawed and violent, the bloc and others could even tighten the screws on Kinshasa. However, such action may not have much effect on Congolese officials.
In fact, Western sanctions would have little impact if great powers such as Russia and China decide to boost their interest and investment in the Central African giant. In 2018, Moscow indicated its intention to increase its involvement through military diplomacy across the continent, especially in places such as the Central African Republic. The Kremlin has sent thousands of weapons, provided hundreds of military trainers and inserted itself into negotiations with rebel factions there — all, reportedly, so it can gain mineral concessions. Earlier this year, Moscow and Kinshasa decided to enact a 1999 security agreement to train and equip the Congolese army. As for China, Beijing and its mining companies would likely relish the prospect of grabbing more of the country's critically important cobalt production if Western producers withdraw due to risks to their reputations or other problems. More broadly, China could also assume a greater role there as it strives to throw its weight around in the far corners of the globe and become an equal to the West on the international stage.
Western sanctions would have little impact, especially if great powers such as Russia and China decide to boost their interest and investment in the Central African giant.
The reactions of countries closer to home will also do much to shape the Democratic Congo's path forward in 2019. Because of its sheer size, its political stability affects neighbors in the continent's southern, central and eastern regions, and its security vacuums and mineral riches have also attracted the meddling of others over the decades. In general, fellow African states usually prove willing to support the status quo — and a certain degree of stability — in their neighbors' domestic affairs, but regional powers such as Angola, Rwanda and Uganda have reason to question whether they will benefit from supporting Shadary as the country's next leader. For instance, the prospect that the ebola virus could spread from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to next-door Uganda amid a crisis of leadership in Kinshasa could provide Kampala with a bigger reason to interfere with the giant to its west. However, Uganda is unlikely to pursue the potentially costly (and uncertain) investment of ensuring an actual transfer of power in its neighbor.
With the results of the country's Dec. 23 elections largely a foregone conclusion, the bigger questions center on what comes next. Amid the prospect for post-election violence and instability, outsiders near and far will need to carefully consider just how to approach Kinshasa.