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Democracy in the Congo?

LONDON – Free, fair, and transparent democratic elections are no longer strangers to Africa. Indeed, they have become a regular occurrence. But the presidential and parliamentary elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the end of November will likely be Africa’s most daunting electoral challenge so far. If the vote comes off successfully, democrats and democratic norms will receive a boost in every corner of the continent.

Geography alone in this vast and poorly connected country constitutes a formidable obstacle to conducting an election according to internationally recognized standards. The DRC is the size of Western Europe. Much of it is covered in thick jungle. The country is also criss-crossed by its eponymous river and various other waterways. The DRC’s poor communications and transportation infrastructure makes it virtually impossible for most Congolese, government officials, and election observers to circulate freely.

Political problems compound the geographical impediments. The DRC has no tradition of democratic governance. The last election, in 2006, was marred by an opposition boycott and chaotic procedures. Perhaps the only reason that the international community declared itself relatively satisfied with the conduct of the poll was that international donors had generously contributed close to $500 million to organize the vote.

The DRC’s history since the withdrawal some half-a-century ago of Belgium, the former colonial master, complicates matters even more. The decades-long kleptocracy of the late president, Mobutu Sese Seko, virtually bankrupted this resource-rich country, eventually spurring an insurgency that brought Laurent-Désiré Kabila to power. After his bodyguards assassinated him in 2001, his son, Joseph Kabila, became president, a job that he is seeking to retain in the forthcoming election.