In the Congo, Catholics dispute presidential election results and fight for a fair ballot box

(COMMENTARY) According to the Catholic Church and counter to the election board, Martin Fayulu, one of the opposition leaders, has won the presidential race in the Congo. In a press conference on Thursday, the secretary general of the Episcopal Conference of the Congo, Father Nshole Donatien, has made an indirect but clearer indication that Fayulu had overwhelmingly carried the 30 December presidential vote.  It could not be otherwise as the Constitution and electoral laws clearly prohibit any person or organization other than the president of the electoral commission to publish the provisional results of the election.

According to the report of the electoral observation by the Episcopal Conference of the Congo, only 39,082 polling stations were observed out of a total of 74.000 polling stations set up by the electoral commission: that is 52.81% of the total.

On Monday the 31st, the day after Election Day, different election returns were circulated by observers on social media. Some showed Fayulu as leading the vote. Others showed Felix Tshisekedi (another opposition leader) or Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary from the ruling party.  The Catholic bishops did not seek to authenticate or make sure theirs corresponded to the originals from the electoral commission.

Even though in all the recent polls (BERCI, Ipsos/GeoPoll), Fayulu and Tshisekedi were leading the intentions of vote against Joseph Kabila’s appointed candidate, it clearly seems untenable to publish a name based on only 52% of the polling stations. But this is exactly what the Catholic bishops decided to do.  And there is a rationale relevant behind, because 48% is critical and can possibly change the tendency for probably the other leader of the opposition, Tshisekedi, or comfort the position of Fayulu.  Why not?  But in any case, an observation based on 52% of the total polling stations is quite small to determine the winner of the presidential election.

According to the election board on Thursday, Tshisekedi won the election with 38.57 percent of the vote, while Fayulu won 34.8 percent. Fayulu has rejected the board’s count.

With a regime tightened due to growing criticism over governance and human rights issues, the Catholic Church has remained the only force to stand for the Congolese people while a divided opposition was trapped in the political game by the ruling party.  The opposition has to face two choices: boycott or participation in an electoral process organized to make sure they do not win.

A Geneva meeting in November was meant to unite and appoint one opposition leader to challenge Shadary from the governing coalition party.  Instead, it generated two groups— on one hand, the group headed by Fayulu that was not willing to take part in election, advocating for President Kabila to resign and for a political transition without him to be organized.  Some names were even released to conduct that transition: the Cardinal Mosengwo or the Nobel Prize winner Dr. Mukwege, two of the most respected people in the Congo.  This group agreed to participate in election only at the very last minute when Fayulu finally called his constituencies to vote with the voting machines he rejected during its campaign.  On the other hand, there is the group headed by Tshisekedi, probably willing to make sure Kabila is definitely gone even with the worse election in the world.  Tshisekedi agreed to particate even though he’s aware of the complete lack of transparency: an unclean electoral roll with over 10 billion voters, the controversial voting machine and exclusion of three pro-opposition constituencies for the presidential election.

To make sure everything is under control, the government was in a hurry to shut down the Internet and SMS services on the day after the Election Day (31st December).  Many non-governmental stations were also deprived from broadcasting while the counting was still ongoing in many polling stations throughout the country. Election returns in many polling stations could not be collected or voting machines could not instantly send the results in Kinshasa to the center of compilation of the results.  This was made purposely to put doubt in the work of observers including the most trusted Episcopal Conference. 

Consequently, there is no possibility to objectively claim who wins the election.

The election is a total blur and lack of transparency.  However, that is the cornerstone from where the action of the Episcopal Conference of the Congo can be understood, as trying to push the government and the Electoral Commission to greater transparency.  By willing to show by all means that the Episcopal Conference is wrong, the Electoral Commission will open itself to a second assessment leading to the rise of the truth verdict of ballot boxes by the organizations (African Union, Southern African Development Community, Episcopal Conference) involved in the mission of observing the election in Congo.

In any case, whoever will swear in as President – Shadary, Fayulu or Tshisekedi – will consecrate a first peaceful transfer of power in the history of the Congo.  Attempts to change the Constitution for a third term have failed, leading President Kabila to consider stepping down after his second and last constitutional term.  As pointed out by an expert in Comparative Constitutional Law, Trésor Makunya, violent overthrow of presidents had remained, until 2001 (Kabila was first democratically elected president), the mean to change president.

There is hope that the action of the Catholic bishops will help in strengthening the integrity of the electoral process.  Nonetheless, this is not without risk. By challenging the government on its own game, some foreign governments have started to rely on the statement of the Episcopal Conference to legitimatize military intervention over eventual unrest that could follow any result.

If the losing candidates concede, it could become the Congo’s first peaceful transfer of power since 1960, when the country gained independence from Belgium.

The DRC's constitutional court is supposed to announce final results before 15 January and the new president should be sworn in a few days later.

Photo of Martin Fayulu in 2015.