Bringing the American election experience to Democratic Republic of the Congo
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As the Democratic Republic of the Congo prepares for our upcoming elections, we aspire to show the world our commitment to a level of integrity and transparency rarely seen before in the African continent. This is no small feat.

In the United States and around the world, elections are truly the high point of the practice of democracy.  They represent the very best of civil society and democratic institutions. But, behind this worthy goal lies the enormous difficulty of executing a free, fair and valid referendum. In the United States—whether it was allegations of Russian meddling or dead people voting—the 2016 election returns were disputed for political advantage. This led to a cloud of conspiracy unfairly impacting an elected leader’s ability to govern, and bred an insidious distrust -- and disengagement -- in the democratic process.

In other countries, the election itself can be a destabilizing force for reasons the developed world often doesn’t comprehend. On a single day in November, almost 130 million Americans cast their votes at more than 175,000 polling places. Now imagine that undertaking in a country with very few roads and limited public transportation. Further still; imagine what it’s like to review a ballot that you cannot read. Ballot access and integrity is critical to fair elections. And it’s even more important in a fledgling democracy on a rapidly developing continent.

This year four major African nations are holding national elections, and they must be carefully administered. Countries on my African continent risk destabilization and violence if their elections aren’t fair, honest and well-organized. This is not theory, this is current reality:  last month, the presidential election in Kenya — overseen by international election monitors, including former Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryJohn Kerry: Trump 'surrendered lock, stock and barrel' to Putin's deceptions Get ready for summit with no agenda and calculated risks Will Democrats realize that Americans are tired of war? MORE — was marred by violence and unrest. Despite positive assessments of the electoral process by independent observers, the opposition party contested the outcome and urging its supporters to take their protests to the streets. Kenya’s Supreme Court overturned the results and ordered a new national election to be held in October.

President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is opting for a different strategy – and one that will guarantee the continued growth of DRC’s democratic institutions.  He, along with the county’s Independent National Election Commission, is working together to ensure that the DRC’s national election, to be held next year, is as inclusive and open as possible. In a developing nation of 82 million people covering almost one million square miles, this is enormously complex:  conducting the election is estimated to cost the country more than one billion dollars. Infrastructure and other challenges prevent voters from getting to their poll sites. And the country must first complete a robust and inclusive voter registration process, which has already allowed millions of Congolese citizens to participate in choosing their nation’s new leaders. We view the U.S. election model as our aspiration, and the safeguards the DRC is placing around this upcoming election will guarantee the Congolese’s faith in a fair outcome, regardless of which candidate is victorious.  

Following a decade-long civil war, many factions remain in my country. But, it’s important for the DRC government to focus on civil society infrastructure and investment in the institutions that will ensure a fair and open democracy in the future, and a continued focus on the wellbeing of all DRC citizens. George Washington cautioned Americans to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism. The same wise caution against lying rhetoric would serve the Congolese people today: demands for elections at the cost of electoral integrity will not yield a positive or trustworthy result.

Elections may be one-day events, but their impact influences the course of a nation’s history and generations of its citizens. Considering other African elections this year, perhaps it’s time to focus on the fundamentals of a sound election, rather than its arbitrary scheduling. It is important to get the election right—to ensure people’s faith in the outcome. We should not have elections for the sake of elections. We should have them for the sake of democracy and for Africa’s future.

Raymond Tshibanda is Democratic Republic of the Congo's Special Envoy to the United States.