Main Congolese Opposition Party Boycotts Presidential Election

The main Congolese opposition party, Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS), boycotted the most recent presidential election in the country. President Denis Sassou Nguesso was re-elected with 88% of the vote on March 23, beating six contenders and extending his 36-year reign to an unprecedented third term. Past events, such as the armed violence and internal displacement that ensued from the fraudulent 2016 election, led UPADS to instead advocate for a 2023 transitional period without Sassou Nguesso on the ballot.

According to Al Jazeera, UPADS explained that “conditions were not conducive for polls and that an election would only lead to more divisions in the country”. These conditions, as reported by Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, included the country’s lack of internet access during the election, the targeting of opposition groups’ members, and deceased people on the electoral register. The government also rejected the Catholic church’s offer to supply independent election observers, as explained to Al Jazeera by the church’s Felicien Mavoungou. On March 23, the third and final day of the 2021 election, Webb reported, “Rights activists say there’s no freedom of speech and there was no chance of having any democratic process in the first place.”

Given the violence that ensued from the 2016 election and a near-pointless electoral process, UPADS’ decision to boycott and attempt to install a transitional period in 2023 proves to be a more peaceful and productive option. It’s difficult for a “predatory structure”, as African Affairs’ Sevérine Autussere calls it, to participate in a transparent election when state officials are those responsible for the violations. Attempting to participate in a dead-end election resulted in armed violence, displacement, and the arrests of UPADS leaders. This only further marginalizes opposition groups and civilians. Their fight for a transitional period also signals a commitment to actually changing the current system that proves to be corrupt and ineffective. Although democratic elections are conducive to political equality and participation, the current “democracy” does not have the capacity to absorb such processes. Instead, UPADS is taking the reasonable and ultimately more peaceful position of realistically adjusting to the situation on the ground.

Sassou Nguesso’s running in the 2016 election was permitted by a staged referendum that amended the constitution’s 70-year-old age and two-term limits. His victory was widely condemned by both opposition groups and international institutions. The fallout from the referendum and election led to two days of shoot-outs near police stations and military checkpoints. In response, Sassou Nguesso launched a military operation against rebel group the Ninjas that displaced 80,000 in the Pool region. The United Nations attempted to deploy humanitarian efforts, but many in non-accessible zones continued to suffer from malnutrition and

deplorable living conditions. The actual number of those killed in the fighting period is unknown due to the government’s rejection of journalists and political institutions, and most are hesitant to divulge the estimated number due to a fear of torture. In an interview conducted by France 24’s Clement Bonnerot and Juliette Dubois, people returning to the Pool region after displacement expressed they dread the electoral process in fear of violence while already struggling with food and job insecurity. The effects of COVID-19 have only worsened economic insecurity following the 2014 oil pricing collapse and led to the March 21st death of the most competitive opposition leader, Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas.

While the boycotting of this election seemingly avoided the repetition of post-electoral violence, the repercussions of the 2016 election followed by the economic effects of COVID-19 only amplifies the importance of changing a regime that doesn’t serve its people. A transitional period would provide the crucial first steps for peaceful, meaningful change.

Rachel Simpson