“We don’t want money, we want change,” said Jean-Michel Mokoko, one of eight candidates contesting Denis Sassou Nguesso’s bid for a third term as President of the Republic of Congo, at his closing campaign rally on Friday (March 18).
He is almost certain to be disappointed. Election analysts and surveys suggest that Sassou Nguesso will claim between 60-70% of the vote in the first round of elections on Sunday.
So is Sassou’s likely victory a triumph or defeat for Congolese democracy?
Most media attention surrounding the October referendum on changes to the Congolese constitution focused on the extension of the term limits, which allowed Sassou Nguesso to run for a third term.
Denis Sassou Nguesso is widely expected to extend his nineteen-year grip on the Congolese presidency during elections on Sunday (20 March), despite international concerns about the fairness and transparency of the poll.
But the rest of the document deserves consideration, particularly from sceptical Europeans.
The new constitution scrapped the death penalty, placing Congo among a group of nineteen countries to have abolished capital punishment.
Meanwhile, changes to the election system include replacing the French-style system of multiple ballots with a single ballot paper from which voters select a candidate – an attempt to ensure that the ballot remains secret. The new constitution also established an electoral commission which the government says is politically balanced between opposition and government parties and civil society representatives.
Opposition parties maintain that the electoral commission is still a tool of the government.
Elsewhere, fixed terms have also been scrapped, with the President able to call an election at any time during a five year term.
“If the President wants to call an election and take the risk of being defeated then it’s up to him,” Henri Bouka, the president of the Congolese election commission, told Euractiv.
If the eight opposition candidates are clear in their view that the poll will not be fair, Bouka insists that there has been no impropriety.
“I can say that all candidates have had the freedom to do what they wanted to do during the campaign,” he told Euractiv.
Bouka also points out that the decision to bring forward the election from July to March did not prevent an extra 244,000 people from being added to the electoral register during a month long enrollment drive which finished in mid-February.
Government ministers insist that all candidates have had access to national media, yet Sassou’s US-presidential style rally on Friday dominated the airwaves.
“Our democracy has never been stronger or more vibrant than it is today,” says Congo’s Communications minister Thierry Moungalla.
That said, there have been numerous accusations of dirty tricks.
Mokoko received a police summons, a month after facing police questioning after a video appeared on the Internet allegedly implicating him in an attempted coup. His campaign team insists that the video is fake.
Social media sites have also seen claims that the electoral register had not been completed ahead of the vote, with opposition candidates urging people who have registered but do not see their names, to insist on their democratic rights.
The refusal of the EU to send an election observation mission is the cause of much chagrin for the government, and for Sassou’s supporters.
“They [the EU] should be fair, we requested an observation team. This election is about the will of the Congolese people. Why can’t they respect that,” says Laurette Angouono, a civil servant, pointing out that Senegalese president Macky Sall has attracted little international criticism despite himself changing the national constitution.
With Congo less than two decades removed from a brief civil war in the mid 1990s, and having embraced Marxism in the 1970s and 80s, Angouno comments that “it’s normal that our democracy will come little by little”.
“One should not underestimate the challenges of establishing a viable democracy in a country without a democratic history and culture, with deep divisions created by civil war, and in a region of Africa characterised by instability and conflict,” says Communications minister Moungalla.
So the question of Congolese democracy is neither black or white. But Bouka is adamant that the election itself will be fair.
“The honest candidates will recognise that the results are correct. The election mechanism is so transparent that there is no way to manipulate the result. The candidates have the right to have a party agent attend the count at each polling station,” he notes, pointing out that “some of the candidates have been travelling in private jets, so they can afford to pay for party agents”.
“I want to do my work honestly, and the result we will announce will be the real result.”
Many people, inside and outside Congo, are not convinced.
“If we are logical, Mokoko will win,” says Nzambi Ress, a student, although he tells Euractiv that Sassou will win. He adds that he refused an offer of 10,000 francs ($20) to give up his voting card.
“We are safe but there is no freedom,” says Ress. “Sassou has been in power too long”.
Like many of its sub-Saharan African neighbours, the Republic of Congo is a country of oil price fuelled boom and bust. But the future is away from oil.