UPDATED, 3 August, with a new link, at bottom of original text.
The images, such as those posted by the BBC, from the election in Congo (Kinshasa) today are inspiring. Nonetheless, as voters struggle with a massively long ballot, comprised of candidates of various armed factions, it is hard to be optimistic that this election represents genuine democratization.
There are thirty three presidential candidates, including incumbent Joseph Kabila. An absolutely majority is required; if it is not achieved today, a runoff will be held on 15 October. (That’s a long time between rounds!) Parliament is also being elected today; obviously, with so many presidential candidates heading different party (and I use that term loosely) tickets, the next president will face a very fragmented assembly. The Congolese constitution, approved via referendum last December, is premier-presidential (as Jonathan Edelstein and I discussed); that is, the president nominates a prime minister who must form a cabinet that is capable of obtaining and maintaining the confidence of the parliamentary majority. More to the point, most of these parties are armed organizations, meaning they retain other means of showing their “no confidence.”
I believe the electoral system for assembly is FPTP, but I would appreciate it if any readers can confirm or correct this.# The bad news in the use of FPTP in this fragmented context is that many legislators are sure to be elected with small pluralities, resulting in a lot of votes effectively “wasted.” The “good” news is that members elected to represent (a fraction of) their localities may be more easily brought (bought?) into a majority coalition than members elected on closed proportional-representation lists assembled by warlords might be. (That is, regardless of electoral system, most candidates will have been nominated by warlords, but members elected in local FPTP districts may prove more independent-minded than members who owe their seats to party leaders’–i.e. warlords’–rankings.*) Of course, again, in a context of armed groups only partially and presumably conditionally having converted themselves into political parties, the electoral system and constitution are hardly the most important factors in how the next phase of Congolese politics will progress (or regress).
Nonetheless, institutions matter–even in the context of domestic conflict.
To see the risks of counting on “democratization” when one or more parties to a conflict remains armed even after entering electoral and parliamentary politics, one need look no farther than recent world news headlines from a region a bit to the northeast of Congo.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) is a huge country in the very heart of Africa, and domestic conflict has had a habit of spilling over into international conflict ever since its bloody independence from Belgium. The country remains host to the largest current UN peacekeeping operation, and the services of the latter are likely to be continued necessary for some time.
More from The Head Heeb, who refers to the situation as “Transitioning Backward.”
# On this question, see the comment below by Bankci. Many districts are FPTP, but many others are open-list PR (often with small magnitude).
* As to whether a compromise–either open lists or MMP–might be a more appropriate choice, I don’t have anything specific to say for the Congolese situation. However, I did address the idea with respect to the Liberian situation some months ago.
I recommend Jonathan’s comments on The Challenges to Come. In particular, I agree with his following observation:
The danger [of candidates using their militias to settle post-election scores] will be especially acute if Kabila wins a first-round victory after a long count. If the election goes to a runoff, the also-rans would have an incentive to make deals with the leading candidates rather than taking their case to the streets. A first-round win, on the other hand, would put Kabila in the president’s chair without the need to buy support from the smaller warlords and local bosses… Also, extended counts often generate disputes and conspiracy theories… one of the also-rans might capitalize on these suspicions to challenge a narrow Kabila majority.