With only seven months to go before elections in the Congo, donors are trying to calibrate their political and financial involvement in the polls.
One forum where this is playing out is the UN Security Council, which will have to renew MONUSCO's mandate in June. At a recent meeting of the Contact Group - a coordination body of the country's main donors - members of the Security Council pushed for a stronger UN role, perhaps even going so far as being the official arbiter of the elections, similar to the UN mission in Cote d'Ivoire.
Others, however, think this is a bad idea. This includes the leadership of MONUSCO, which wants to confine the UN role to logistics and support, while leaving monitoring and oversight to NGOs and other international bodies. Since the new chief of the mission Roger Meece arrived, MONUSCO has been at pains to reestablish a good working relationship with the Congolese government on issues such as protection of civilians and security sector reform. Its leadership is worried that being an arbiter of the elections will put it in a confrontational relationship with the government, undermining its other work. In addition, members of the UN, as other diplomats, now increasingly believe that Kabila will win through a combination of rigging and a divided opposition, so why risk your good standing in vain?
At the same time, EU parliamentarians have discouraged the EU foreign minister from even sending an election observation mission to the Congo. Their argument for disengagement is different from that of MONUSCO, however: they say that the process is already so compromised that the election will not be free and fair, therefore sending an EU mission would just legitimize a fraudulent election. Plus, it would be too expensive - nearly a quarter of the EU's annual budget for these kinds of missions.
I think there are some dangerous logical fallacies at play here. The following argument does not, in my mind, make much sense: "The elections will be rigged anyway, so we shouldn't send observers." It is precisely because there are serious questions about the process that neutral observers should be sent. If there is serious rigging, the mere presence of such observers in the Congo will not legitimize the vote - on the contrary, a clear documentation and denunciation of fraud will make it clear that the vote was not free and fair. If they do not send observers, ironically that could end up legitimizing the process, as few outsiders will be there to state the facts.
As for MONUSCO's mandate, the matter is more complex. I find the argument that the UN can't jeopardize its good relations with the Congolese government a slippery slope - once we begin to refrain from criticism to keep in our hosts' good books, when do we stop? And the notion that we can separate civilian protection and the reform of Congolese institutions from the elections is not straight-forward: The Congolese government has not shown much sincere interest in reforming its own institutions over the past five years, who is to say that just because we don't press them on elections they will do it in the next few years?
On the other hand, the situation in the Congo is very different from that in the Ivory Coast. The Congo is a sovereign country with a democratically elected president, as opposed to 2006, when elections took place at the end of a peace process. If the Congolese government does not want MONUSCO to be the official arbiter, and there are no such calls from the opposition and civil society, the UN should not take on that role. However, there are other options that could be equally important: the formation of a centralized monitoring group of donors, which together with civil society could gather information of human rights and electoral abuses; help making sure the logistics are in place throughout the country so people can vote; and help level the access to the media for all political parties through the UN Radio Okapi.
These elections have the potential of being more controversial than the 2006 polls. While none of the opposition candidates is affiliated to an armed groups, as was the case 5 years ago, this time the incumbent is arguably less popular than he was in 2006. In general, it's disappointing that some of the people who are supposed to help Congolese elect their representatives are treating the elections as a foregone conclusion.