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Kabila and the voting machines: The DRC's controversial elections

DRC ballots, including the one I filled out. Photo: David Lawler / Axios

I was one of thousands of Americans who cast a ballot last Tuesday. Mine wasn't for a Senate primary, though — it was for president of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The back story: One of the many controversies surrounding December's elections in the DRC is the plan to use voting machines, a move Nikki Haley has said carries “enormous risk.” The commission brought one to D.C. in an attempt to ease those concerns, and allowed me to try it out. (No, my vote doesn't actually count.)

The big question is whether President Joseph Kabila, the only president the DRC has known since a brutal war ended in 2003, will try to extend his rule despite being constitutionally barred from running again. He has confounded observers by declining to say he’ll step aside, and based on recent propaganda, he may indeed be planning to stick around.

  • When I stepped up to vote, I noted that Kabila was among my choices for president. An official hastened to clarify that the machine displayed the candidates from 2011.

I asked Corneille Nangaa, president of the DRC’s independent electoral commission, when the suspense surrounding Kabila will end. He said when presidential candidates are officially named on Aug. 7, “then you will know he is not a candidate.”

  • Nangaa insisted that if Kabila planned to remain president he would have changed the constitution, as others in the region have done.

The voting process seemed quite simple, particularly after I’d seen the 58-page newspaper-style ballot used in 2011. (Congo’s electoral system is convoluted, and that ballot included 18,000 candidates.)

The officials said it would be twice as long this time due to provincial elections, and could not possibly be printed and distributed by election day.

  • “I told Nikki Haley: ‘no voting machines, no elections in December,’” Nangaa told me. “Who will be blamed for that?” As for her concerns that the technology is “unfamiliar” to millions of Congolese and makes results difficult to trust, he counters that she is making the trust problems worse based on “incorrect information.”

More from the interview

  • Nangaa said he’d been told he was at risk of U.S. sanctions due to his role in delaying the elections. “If you sanction me, what do you expect to get from me? I can proclaim a referendum, I can do what they don’t want me to do,” he said.
  • However, he said he will not support any additional delays. “We need to get elections. The country needs it,” he said. "The country cannot be suspended by one man."
  • He said the vast country of 80 million faces political challenges (“are all political parties ready for the election? Some of them I doubt it”), technical and logistical concerns (90,000 polling stations, the new machines) and security challenges, particularly in the East. One other concern:
“No one has ever asked what role the army and the security services will play. They are people who believe strongly in Kabila. How are they going to behave when Kabila says he’s not a candidate?”