Catholic Church Calls Bulls*** on Democratic Republic of the Congo Election

After two weeks of delay, the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has finally announced results for last month’s presidential election, and the population, international community and the powerful local Catholic Church are all objecting to the results. Not since the final episode of Lost has there been this much anticipation giving way to so much disappointment (and this election even had it’s own smoke monster)

DRC Elections: Who’s Who and What’s At Stake

After delaying presidential elections for over two years since his presidency was supposed to end, and disqualifying several of the most popular politicians in the country from running (including simply not letting one of them reenter the country at all), DRC President Joseph Kabila’s government finally held a vote and put its weight behind a former government minister named Emmanuel Shadary. Mr. Shady Shadary was the guy who coordinated Kabila’s violent crackdown against government opponents (so that sent a great signal to those hoping for reform in the country), and it was largely believed that a Shadary presidency would have been a front for Kabila continuing in power (remember that period when Vladimir Putin was technically no longer President of Russia? Yeah, me neither).

Meanwhile, the bulk of the opposition put their support behind Martin Fayulu. One opposition leader, however, pulled out of the coalition – Felix Tshisekedi, another political newcomer who is the son of late longtime opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi (it was Etienne who lost to Kabila in the last election in 2011).

Kabila would not allow international election observers to monitor the vote (the kind of thing that Jimmy Carter – America’s greatest ex-President – does nowadays), but the huge and powerful Catholic Church in the DRC (who were largely responsible for forcing Kabila to actually leave office and hold this vote) put out 40,000 of its own members to observer the vote and gather info, and the Church has been saying off the record tthat Fayulu had won. The younger Tshisekedi’s victory has left many people scratching their heads, by which I mean they’re saying the government is lying its behind off.

Everyone had been prepared for one of two outcomes: Option A: the government would cook the books and claim that its guy, Slim Shadary, won and simply force the country to accept it, even if that risked a new conflict in a country that’s had civil wars for the past 20 years. Option B: Kabila would let elections proceed relatively fairly (and probably retire somewhere with a stack of cash he’s likely stored for himself abroad), which would put Fayulu in office in something resembling democracy, letting the country live up to its name (polling just before the vote had Fayulu enjoying double digit leads over both opponents). The government’s move to let Tshisekedi win instead is already leading to speculation that the second-generation opposition leader cut an under the table deal with Kabila to share power.

The Church and the State

Tshisekedi’s win also puts a spotlight on the Catholic Church, which has been the strongest opposition force in the country, for both structural and political reasons. As the largest and most well-resourced NGO in the country, the Catholic Church is broad and dispersed (six archdioceses, over 40 dioceses, thousands of priests and millions of members) and has therefore been able to act as an independent and critical force vis-a-vis the government (i.e. it’s hard to buy off or intimidate such a disperse and wide variety of clergy, as I and yes, I wrote a dissertation on this).

Politically, the Church was initially neutral and had enough clout and trust to negotiate for new elections in 2016, but when Kabila reneged on the agreement, the Church began protesting, and security forces responded violently, leaving several people dead.

On the one hand, Tshisekedi’s win technically gives the Church what it has been demanding – a transition of power away from the Kabila government that has overstayed its welcome. On the other hand, Kabila’s bad faith, and the lethal repression of Church-led and other protests – government violence coordinated by Shadary – clearly gives the Church motivation to oppose any moves by the current government to manipulate the results. The Congolese bishops’ conference has not yet publicly stated its belief that Fayulu won the election – if it does, it could further throw the results in doubt, increase the chances of instability in the country, and set up a new showdown between the government and the Catholic Church.

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