American University

Does Less Authoritarian Mean More Democratic? by Gwenyth Szabo

According to the Freedom House’s 2019 report of freedom levels around the world, it is clear that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the most suppressive countries in the world with a score of fifteen out of one-hundred. Despite such a low freedom rating, the country recently held elections in December 2018  to vote in a new president and replace former president Joseph Kabila. Kabila had been in power for 18 years (since 2001), exceeding the 2-term limit (each for 5 years), by using the caretaker clause in the DRC’s constitution to justify his extra term in power.

Kabila’s presidency was supposed to end in 2016, but when he failed to organize elections and remained in power, the National Episcopal Conference (CENCO) – the Catholic Church – responded by taking to the streets in peaceful protest. Kabila’s security team brutally crushed the Church opposition: a highlight of the regime’s blatant authoritarianism and poor freedom rating. The 2018 elections proved to be a deviation from the DRC’s pattern of violent transitions of power. In fact, it is the first peaceful transition of power in the 60 years since the country’s independence from Belgium.

Twenty-one candidates ran in the 2018 election with three frontrunners: Felix Tshisekedi (former political opponent of Kabila), Martin Fayulu of the Lamuka coalition, and Emmanuel Shadary of the Common Front for Congo (FCC and Kabila’s party). The announced winner was Tshisekedi, but this result has been challenged by the Catholic Church, which deployed 40,000 workers during the election and reported that Fayulu was clearly the winner. There are rumors that Tshisekedi struck a secret deal with the FCC, allowing Kabila to keep control over the state’s ministries and security in exchange for the presidency.

Attempts to control voting further diminished the credibility of the elections. Groups of voters in Beni, Butembo, and Yumbi (strongholds of citizens who predominately favored the Fayulu opposition) could not vote in the elections because the Electoral Commission feared poll workers could be infected or endangered by the Ebola outbreak and ethnic violence. More subtle ballot manipulation to inhibit citizens from voting occurred as well, such as high voter registration fees.

In response to suspicions and accusations of illegitimate elections, Fayulu called on his supporters to engage in “peaceful resistance” to combat the false elections. Fayulu and his supporters also challenged the election results legally by appealing to Congo’s Constitutional Court, but this petition was ultimately rejected, finalizing Tshisekendi’s presidency.

The December election was not just a presidential one; citizens cast votes to fill parliamentary and judicial positions. The FCC won most of the parliamentary seats and provincial court positions, so even though the DRC will change presidents, the parliamentary power remains in the hands of Kabila’s party. The prime minister will also be appointed from the dominant party in the parliament, and since Kabila holds the title of the “moral authority” of his party, he will continue to control affairs of the state. Controlling the courts and parliament with members of his party allows Kabila to preserves his authoritarian rule.

Packing courts and manipulating voter abilities are two strategies for subverting democratic institutions. The peaceful transition of power shows a shift in strategy to maintain authoritarianism while appearing to be more democratic. Steven Levisky and Daniel Ziblatt call this balancing act a “democratic veneer” (4). The beginning of a democratic veneer in the DRC is unique, for the authoritarian regime is shifting away from a violent extremity to a more subtle approach. Efforts for a peaceful election in the DRC attempt to mask the underlying authoritarianism, and ironically, by adopting a modified form of authoritarianism, the DRC has appeared to become more democratic because it has permitted democratic institutions with an opportunity to be successful.

One of the core components of democracy is free and fair elections, and for
a historically violent and authoritarian regime, a peaceful transition of power and the validity of an election concluded through democratic institutions is progress. But it is not democratic. The legitimacy of elections and the principles behind them contribute to a democracy’s success. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, “democracies work best – and survive longer – where constitutions are reinforced by unwritten domestic norms” (8). Kabila and Tshisekendi’s cooperation is a sign of mutual toleration and the decriminalization of political opposition necessary to build democratic ideals; however, the core authoritarian mechanisms are still in place. Breaking down the norm of violence associated with elections lays the foundation for future compromise, but these institutions must be allowed to grow into the checks and balances of a democracy. While the DRC has made an initial step towards stability for democracy, in its current state, the authoritarian regime is only adapting, not evolving to become more democratic.

On a global level, the international community is reluctant to accept and quick to criticize the election results, but they do not set a good example. The African Union and the European Union refused to congratulate Tshisekedi but acknowledged they will work with him moving forward. Accepting the election results is a win for the DRC because it affirms the elections’ legitimacy and Tshisekedi’s undemocratic means to power. In addition, authoritarian tendencies of countries, such as the United States, reveal examples of authoritarian gains while preserving a proud democratic tradition. Concerns raised by Freedom House about the United States’ deterioration of democracy show that the DRC is merely adopting new methods implemented by Western governments. While peace is a sign of growth, subverting the democratic institutions meant to allow fair elections indicates that the DRC will now need to shift its focus to strengthen its institutions or better conceal its authoritarianism.

Letvitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York, Broadway Books, 2018.

Photo by John Wessels, “Congo Sets Presidential Election for 2018,” (The Guardian), AFP Photo.


  1. Salvatore Ragonese

    February 15, 2019 at 9:14 am

    This is certainly an alarming concern. It is interesting to see this dynamic between authoritarianism and democracy in a country that one can only assume struggles to maintain a stable government. For an individual such as myself that is far from an authority on DRC politics, this was an exceptionally informative post. The many factors that contributed to the election and its results such as the Catholic Church and its protests, the rumors of a secret deal, the quiet acceptance of the Western world, demonstrate that the situation is more sophisticated than one may see at first glance. One critique I have is your comparison to US “authoritarian tendencies”, which I think is a broad statement that deserves to be explored in more detail. Furthermore, it would be useful to research the social culture of DRC and to determine whether or not democracy is actually a part of the culture.

  2. Isabel Colyer

    April 3, 2019 at 4:54 pm

    This is a helpful look at the outcomes and implications of the recent election in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At first glance the fact that this marked the DRC’s first peaceful transition of presidential power in fifty years certainly seems like a cause for celebration. I remember reading articles about this event at the time which gave readers the impression that the country’s democracy was fully restored, with no mention of any significant flaws. Of course, a peaceful transition of power for a young democracy like the DRC is a positive sign. But this blog demonstrates that a closer examination of the election process and its outcomes reveals deeply undemocratic flaws. Many of the issues discussed here match Gyimah-Boadi’s description of common flaws in African democracies, in his article Africa’s Waning Democratic Commitment. Gyimah-Boadi identifies the embrace of elections as one of the major positive trends in African democracy in recent decades. Since the 2018 presidential elections in the DROC finally ended Kabila’s 18-year rule, the DRC would appear to fit this trend. However, Gyimah-Boadi also explains that in many African democracies, the power of multiparty elections is undermined by the violence and corrupt election manipulation that accompanies these elections. This explanation makes sense in the context of the DRC’s 2018 elections. Through the lens of Gyimah-Boadi’s argument, the voter suppression described in this blog might be an example of the undemocratic practices which threaten many fragile African democracies like the DRC. Gyimah-Boadi also notes that regional organizations in Africa, like the African Union, often harm African democracies by remaining unwilling to condemn governments for their undemocratic practices. Since the African Union has agreed to work with Tshisekedi moving forward, despite the flawed election, this seems to be the case in the DRC.

  3. Caleb Logan

    April 4, 2019 at 12:46 pm

    I think one of the most salient points in your post is that Western democracies are often far too hospitable to questionably elected leaders. Countries with means are often unwilling to forsake economic ties or implement military action when there appears to be some indication of democracy. Meanwhile, the citizens of these countries face the same suppressive regimes as they did before the elections.

    New pressures from the United States, international bodies, and NGO’s after the Cold War dramatically reduced the number of non-democracies in the world. However, in some cases the same regimes stay in power using, as described by Ozan Varol (2015), “stealth authoritarianism.” These leaders “imbue their regimes with a veneer of legitimacy and legality.” In this way, regimes are able to avoid harsh condemnation by democratic nations, international bodies, and NGO’s. Certainly, the challenge now is for these powerful bodies to stop allowing stealth authoritarianism and to raise their standards of democracy.

  4. Jacob Olson

    April 18, 2019 at 12:23 am

    I enjoy how thoroughly you delved into authoritarianism and how types of authoritarianism can affect how democratic the country looks to other countries. Truly, there are many states who appear democratic on the surface (having elections, etc.) but lack the underlying democratic norms you mentioned. I also hasten to add that the opposition says a lot about the democratic status of the country. Because many protests seem to be peaceful, I am optimistic about the DRC’s democratic future. After all, it is the people within the country that create the lasting change.

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