November 28, 2011 was historic in the DR Congo; the first ever democratic national election organized by the Congolese themselves. Indeed it was only the second time since independence in 1960 that a multi-party electoral vote would be set to determine the presidential seat. However, this relatively undeveloped voting system left the electoral process wide open to systemic and local corruption that could erode its very legitimacy. Two years ago I visited communities affected by violence in the eastern DR Congo. So when Christian Aid offered me the opportunity to help monitor and evaluate the election, I felt compelled to return in the hope that a fair election would improve the livelihoods of the Congolese people.
On arrival, I was particularly struck by how little French I actually remembered. While this may seem to be a trivial matter, it was one that grew in significance over the course of the weekend – especially when it transpired that this was to be the language of delivery for our first day of training! Luckily, I had plenty of willing translators on hand and, as each day passed, my linguistic skills improved.
Not too dissimilar to the electoral process in the UK, school buildings serve as the majority of polling centres, with individual classrooms serving as polling stations.
On Saturday 26th November, we were tasked with ensuring that preparation was underway at the polling centres, checking whether the buildings were secure and if lists of voters had been posted. On Sunday 27th November, we took notes detailing whether materials, such as ballot papers and boxes had been delivered to the centres and securely distributed to individual classrooms.
As I spent time observing several voting sites on Monday 28th November, I was truly inspired by the Congolese people’s enthusiasm and genuine desire for a transparent and truly fair electoral process. Despite the ballot paper amounting to more of a ballot book due to the sheer number of parliamentary candidates, most people voted for both their future president and their parliamentarian of choice. People took their time to ensure they adhered to the rules of voting, eager to do it properly. Most poignantly, it was apparent that people simply wanted to vote; they wanted their voice to be heard.
As we travelled to various polling stations, it was evident that the majority of voters not only wanted to participate in a fair and open election, but were genuinely grateful for the presence of the international observers. There were four or five situations where tensions flared between voters, but these were in many ways similar to the aggravation caused by party activists in any typical British election. On receiving complaints of misconduct, our role was to report such instances through the appropriate channels, and note any patterns or discrepancies.
At the end of the day, votes were counted in each classroom and witnesses for candidates signed in agreement of ballot figures, before these were transported in a sealed bag to the National Results Centre for verification.
While I bore witness to several amateur practices – including loose ballot papers, sloppy admin, and human error in vote counting - overall, the election day itself seemed to be quite successful. The EurAc/AETA Official Report highlights several violent incidents in the Kananga province, and there was clearly intimidation in other areas. But the vast majority of Congolese did vote peacefully. With determination and high spirits, the majority of the people in the DR Congo tried to do their part to contribute to an effective and reliable democratic electoral process. This should not be discounted or overlooked.
A large part of the international community has responded to the elections with condemnation and frustration. However, it is vital that criticisms of a few do not negate the sincere efforts and genuine hopes of the many. My personal experience is that the majority of the Congolese believe in a credible and honest democratic election, and went to great lengths travelling near and far to participate. A complete dismissal of their efforts risks undermining their faith in democratic values, the very values which the international community has worked hard to support. It is imperative that global criticisms of corruption of the Congolese few should be met equally with admiration of the Congolese many who have endeavored to participate in the election openly and fairly. And that the international donors, like the UK and the EU, insist on lessons learned so that the next Congolese elections meet the aspirations of the Congolese people more consistently.