|Pre-election media analysis: The DRC’s 2011 Presidential and Parliamentary elections|
|Written by Mookho Makthetha (1) Wednesday, 16 November 2011 08:14|
Web 2.0 technologies – Blogs, Wikis and Social networking sites – have recently become helpful in gauging public perceptions and sentiment about elections. This is due, in part, to the rise in the use of social media technology for political dialogue by African electorates. Although these online discussions are not determinants of voter behaviour or other forms of political participation, they do offer valuable insights into the ideas people hold about elections.
On the 28 November 2011, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will be holding its second post-transition elections. Presidential and legislative elections will run concurrently. The country has one of Africa’s most turbulent political histories and because of that, forecasts about the upcoming elections are bleak. Fears abound that the election might plunge the country into another wave of violence and this has generated international interest in the polls. This CAI paper aims to discuss posts about the DRC elections on Twitter from the month of October to 1 November 2011. It is a thematic analysis of Twitter entries, known as tweets, about the DRC’s upcoming election and attempts to gauge the mood of the discussions.
Rocky road to democracy
The journey to the second post-transition elections in the DRC has been a difficult one. The country was the site of a bloody civil war that was waged from the late 1990s to early 2000s, which involved eight African nations and an estimated 25 militia groups.(2) A peace agreement signed in 2003 by most of the belligerents put in place a transitional Government, which was replaced by an elected Government in 2006 when the first post-transition elections were held. The new Government, with Joseph Kabila at the helm, has since restored relative calm to most parts of the DRC, but intermittent armed conflict involving local militias, Government forces and foreign rebel groups continue to destabilise the east of the DRC. The struggle over control of the DRC’s vast mineral resources, most of which are located in the east, has been isolated as the main reason for the continuing conflict.
The upcoming elections are seen as “a crucial step towards stabilising the vast mineral-rich country.”(3) However, the road to the elections has been marred by several problems. The number of candidates competing in the DRC’s legislative elections is astronomical, impacting negatively of logistical preparations. More than 18,000 candidates will be vying for 500 seats in the legislative leg of the elections.(4) So far, eleven candidates are competing for the Presidency. Among them is the incumbent President, Joseph Kabila, who was re-nominated this year as the candidate for the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD).(5) In spite of this nomination Kabila will be competing in the election as an independent candidate.
Kabila took control of the country after his father’s assassination in 2001 and he won the 2006 election - albeit controversially. Consequently, winning the 2011 election will put him in office for a third term. Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UPDS), is seen as Kabila’s biggest opponent. Tshisekedi enjoys support from large parts of the DRC. However, his age – twice that of the Presidential incumbent – and his political history – he has been linked to the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba - could be the source of his campaign’s undoing.(6) Although not fielding a candidate for the Presidential election, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), which currently has the second largest number of parliamentary seats, is considered to be another major contender in the upcoming polls. The MLC’s leader, Jean Pierre Bemba is on trial at The Hague for war crimes in the Central African Republic.(7)
Among the political developments that have contributed in rendering the DRC’s on-going electoral process highly contentious, is a January 2010 Constitutional amendment, which makes it possible for the President to be elected with a simple majority. In addition, voter and candidate registration has been problematic. For instance, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) claims that more than 119, 000 people have been registered twice on the voter’s roll(9) and the list of candidates for the parliamentary election was published over a month later than it should have been.(10) Furthermore, crucial electoral material such as ballot boxes arrived late in the country and in mid-October 2011 the INEC held a ‘crisis’ meeting with Government asking for the release of more funds for the electoral process. It is estimated that the ‘spiralling’ budget for the election could reach US$ 1.2 billion. It has been suggested that the election will be postponed for logistical reasons(8) and some commentators claim that, given these logical challenges, it would be a miracle if a credible poll were held on 28 November 2011.(11)
Besides the logistical problems, several acts of sporadic pre-election violence have tainted the electoral process. There have been several violent confrontations between the UPDS and the DRC’s national police. The UPDS has held many demonstrations for an assortment of reasons. In one of these demonstrations, UPDS members marched to the offices of the electoral commission demanding more transparency from the body.(12) The UPDS Secretary General later argued that the heavy-handedness of the police during this particular demonstration led to the death of a female street vendor who was hit by a stray bullet and several UPDS protestors were injured.(13) In another wave of violent incidents in July 2011, the PPRD offices in Kinshasa were looted and burned down while the headquarters of the opposing UPDS and the offices of a media house that supports the party were looted and set alight by unidentified men in what has been deemed to be a revenge attack for the PPRD arson.(14)
As earlier indicated, the upcoming elections in the DRC present the country with an opportunity to consolidate its shaky democracy and fast-track reconstruction efforts. However, there is an equal chance that, if not well managed, the current electoral process could plunge the country into renewed chaos. This recognition, coupled with the DRC’s geo-strategic importance and bleak history, has generated global interest in the DRC polls, which has found expression in social media discourses.
Social media and political discussions
Web 2.0 and social media are umbrella terms that describe the range of electronically mediated interpersonal interactions on the Internet.(15) These technologies include social networking sites such as Facebook, blogging sites such as Tumblr and, most important to this discussion, micro-blogging websites such as Twitter. Twitter is an internet-based micro-blogging service that allows users to share 140 character long text messages with multi-platform media such as photos, audio or video clips. The media are shared through URL embedded into the text messages and appear as part of the message in hyperlink. Perhaps two of the most attractive elements of Twitter are its immediacy and the succinctness of its message updates.
Since its creation in 2006, Twitter, like most other Web 2.0 and social media, has allowed electorates to engage in public political discussions and because of this it has been predicted that it would democratise political public discussion, making it more people-centred and less about formal media outlets. Even though Twitter has increased people’s political dialogue, it does not necessarily determine public participation in politics. In other words, it serves as “a supplementary avenue for self-expression, a communication medium and a virtual public sphere,”(16) but it is not often that the political interactions online translate into political participation offline. Micro-blogging has, in reality, become “more conversational and collaborative.”(17)
Political micro-blogging has often been studied from two perspectives, either from the perspective of the citizen attempting to engage in political dialogue or from the perspective of the politician attempting to connect with their constituents.(18) Studies on political micro-blogging from the citizen’s perspective have found that users often tweeted information or news and would supplement that information with URLs to news articles or their own blog pieces rather than engage in ongoing discussions about political issues.(19) Even when the discussion went on for longer, they were limited to certain times and events. For example, during the 2008 Presidential elections in the United States, posts about political issues peaked during televised debates between candidates. Therefore, Twitter use during elections has been more informative than conversational.
The DRC’s 2011 elections on Twitter
The majority of tweets about the DRC Presidential and legislative elections were posted by news organisations, journalists, bloggers and humanitarian organisations, a number of whom are not located in the DRC itself. Only a few tweets by DRC citizens were identified. This could be explained by the fact that English is not an official language in the DRC and that the review focused exclusively on English tweets.
Most of the tweets were used for disseminating news and information and the remainder were commentary on those news pieces. These tweets were supplemented with URL links to news articles, op-ed pieces on news websites and blog posts. Very few tweets were discussions about the elections or the electoral process itself. The most common posting, that is, the most frequently occurring tweet during searches was a post by @anitavandenbeld, which read “I just hosted a successful delegation of Bill Richardson to #DRC #Congo hope it will lead to peaceful elections.” The tweet provides a URL link to an article that documents a meeting between all major political parties and the INEC, organised by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson.
A number of the tweets were retweets and retweet @ replies. The most retweeted post was an online Guardian opinion piece about the situation in the DRC. It appeared when the campaign trail began towards the end of October. The article asserted, among other things, that the DRC’s November poll might descend the country into a similar crisis that manifested after the Ivorian elections in 2010.(20) It also contends that “there are lots of reports of violent abuse against opposition candidates, seizing of campaign literature and complaints about registration of voters.”(21) This initial tweet is indicative of the general theme that underlies the bulk of Twitter feeds about the election. Overall, the piece argued that the DRC’s political and social fragility posed “serious challenges for future development efforts”(22) and thus provided a very gloomy prediction of the upcoming election. Two major themes could be identified in the tweets and these are discussed below.
The fear of violence and the hope for peaceful elections
The demonstrable hope that the approaching DRC elections could stabilise the country is contrasted with persistent discourse of violence. Some examples of tweets of hope include a tweet from @FreeFairDRC which read “the upcoming elections are an opportunity to change the direction of a country beset by poverty and unlock its huge potential,” while another user @Liamtheactivist argued that the election was the “ultimate test for Congolese politicians … and the international community.”
The discourse of peaceful elections is inextricably linked to the fear of violence and this has permeated the tweets. Several media sources, human rights groups and civil society have expressed fears that the elections could intensify conflicts in the central African country.(23) This discourse is directly related to the legitimacy of election candidates and the credibility of the election process as a whole. @JoseMusau tweeted “the people of Congo need to help keep these elections free and fair.” Free and fair also implies peaceful and relatively non-violent.
The campaign announcements a month before the election were already met with grim and negative forecasts. A user @loureports tweeted, “November elections in DRC – their risks, with no reconciliation process underway. Grim.” Her tweet was complemented by a URL link to a Guardian web article that reported that militia are rearming because they came to distrust the electoral process. Another user @michaealdeibert tweeted that the “DR Congo election: Rights groups warn of instability.” This tweet hyperlinked to a BBC news article that reported that 40 human rights groups warned that clashes between police and opposition demonstrators “showed the potential for destabilisation.”(24) In addition to that, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)tweeted through their account that the “signs for #Congo’s elections are not encouraging” and linked to a French article detailing the problems with the DRC elections.
There are many more examples of the perceived threats to the Congo elections that could destabilise the country. The United Nations news wire account tweeted under @UNPeacekeeping said that it was “concerned over fatal shooting as poll campaign begins.” More than three separate accounts either linked to or retweeted a @GuardianNews news article that reported that some ex-combatants were militarising amid fears that the ruling party would compromise the election for their own benefit. @HopeAngrCourage linked to a Globe and Mail article that predicted that the DRC as “one of Africa’s biggest and most unstable countries is sliding toward a resurgence of armed conflict as a crucial campaign is increasingly tainted by fraud allegations and violent clashes.”(25) It went on to report that few people were expecting the vote to be fair and that the growing mistrust between stakeholders in the election could lead to war.
The inference of many of the tweets is that these indicators – growing mistrust amongst political stakeholders, the likelihood of fraud and pre-election violence – do not bode well for the poll. Hence, each and every act of violence, any logistical problem with the election and any indications that either the government or the opposition are competing ‘unfairly’ is considered to be adding fuel to an already fierce fire. Furthermore, the level of competition between candidates is often considered to be another determinant of violence during election periods.(26) The fiercer the competition, the greater the likelihood of violent skirmishes between supporters of opposing parties. This has led to the conflation of conflict with violence. Political conflict is inevitable because each party has competing interests, which they are trying put at the top of the national agenda. Conflict and debate are inherent features of politics. However, the constant references to violence, especially in the context of competing political interests, manufacture a fear of conflict as a whole. The word ‘conflict’ itself evokes negative feelings and imagery.
In contrast to the tweets that forewarned violence, tragedy and political instability, tweets about hope and peace appeared. More than two tweets in this category implored the reader to pray for peaceful elections and others cited assurances from important political figures that the electoral process would be free and fair. A user @tealfleming implored other users to pray for peaceful elections in the country. @FreeFairDRC reported that the Vatican had joined the call for prayer for peaceful elections. Suffice to say that the theme of non-violent, peaceful elections informed most of the tweets. @UKinSouthAfrica tweeted a hyperlink article that reported that the United Kingdoms’ Minister to Africa had reaffirmed the United Kingdom’s commitment to supporting the DRC for free and fair elections.
Women are still under-represented in politics in the DRC
The DRC has had a highly problematic human rights record, particularly with regard to women. Inter Press reports that women in the DRC, particularly in the eastern part of the country, are “one of the most vulnerable population groups in the world.”(27) Although the statistics are murky, sexual and gender based violence has been a persistent problem in the country for a long time. Women are also under-represented in the political landscape. Only 2,209 of the 18,000 candidates vying for parliamentary seats in the 2011 election are women. A small portion of tweets spoke to the theme of women’s under-representation specifically. This theme was activated in an InterPress Service report that only 12% of the estimated 18,000 parliamentary candidates were women. This tweet was retweeted by the @Genderwire account of InterPress Service. Another user @melaniegouby tweeted that a campaign scripts for PPRD and the UPDS were patronising and patriarchal while the UNC manifesto “has good ideas and focus on education for girls.” She added that the UNC might perhaps be her favourite party at the moment. This was the first in the wide range of tweets that specific political parties were mentioned.
The tweets about the DRC’s November 2011 elections are as varied in their content as they are plenty. However, many of them spoke to two dominant and interconnected themes – the fear of violence and the desire for peaceful and credible elections. It seems as though violent conflict is considered to be an inherent characteristic of African elections or at the very least a likely outcome if something goes awry during an election. This trend points to the discursive conflation of conflict and violence. The tweets nominally addressed the role of women. The overall narrative of the DRC has been that of an unstable nation that is rich in mineral resources and yet has been unable to meet its development goals because of continuing violence. The under-representation of women is seen as a symptom of the violence. But it is also important to note that most of these tweets came from formal media, journalists or humanitarian organisations and not citizens. It would thus be intriguing to study Twitter feeds on Election Day or closer to the time to gauge public sentiment and perception about the elections. However, Twitter has proven to be a valuable resource in viewing online representations of the elections.
(1) Contact Mookho Makhetha through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Election Reflection Unit (