By: Agnes Miriam
On 20 December 2023, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) held its presidential and parliamentary elections. The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) declared the incumbent President Felix Tshisekedi of Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), the winner with 73% of the votes. Moise Katumbi of Together for the Republic obtained 18% of the votes, Martin Fayulu, Lamuka coalition, 5%, and Denis Mukwege, a renowned physician for treating women brutalized by sexual violence in Eastern Congo, received less than 1%. In the parliamentary elections, the Sacred Union of the Nation Coalition and its allies won 450 out of 477 confirmed seats in the National Assembly. President Tshisekedi UDPS received the most votes of the Coalition parties and 69 seats.
The elections occurred as the Central African region faced instability and the DRC conflict. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has begun its withdrawal and transfer of responsibility to the Congolese authorities. The history of elections in DRC has a persistent crisis of legitimacy. The 2023 elections failed to break the country’s long legacy of fraudulent polls, plunging the Government into a fresh crisis of legitimacy. While scheduled for 20 December 2023, CENI announced a one-day extension of voting due to widespread delays. However, voting continued through Christmas Day and ended on 27 December 2023. This extension was deemed illegal under Congolese law by an independent audit of the National Episcopal Catholic Conference of the Congo (CENCO), as it meant that no one knew when the polls closed.
According to CENCO and CCC (Church of Christ in Congo), a union of 62 Protestant denominations, 27% of polling stations did not open at all, voting machines were being placed in military schools, and 45% of the voting machines malfunctioned. In addition, CENI failed to release the register of voters for review and corroboration as per the electoral practice.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has a bicameral parliament comprising the National Assembly and the Senate. The National Assembly has 500 members, and the Senate consists of 108 indirectly elected members, with the 109th seat held by former President Joseph Kabila, who holds a lifetime appointment. In the National Assembly, 439 members are elected by proportional representation vote in multi-seat constituencies, and 61 are elected by plurality vote in single constituencies. All 500 members are directly elected and serve 5-year terms. The President is directly elected by plurality vote and may serve up to two 5-year terms.
In 2022, the Electoral Law 22-029 introduced reforms to increase election transparency and confidence. These reforms required the participating parties and coalitions to field candidates for at least 60% of the National Assembly seats. Among its other provisions, it declared a person ineligibility to run for office if convicted of genocide and other grave offences. In 2023, Law 23/025 established new seat allocations for the national and provincial assemblies based on the revised voter roll.
Women’s Political Participation
In the recently concluded elections, the percentage of women elected to both houses of the legislature increased moderately. In the National Assembly, women secured 61 (12.2%) out of 500 seats, compared to 50 (10%) seats out of 500 in 2018.
On June 29th, 2022, an electoral reform for the upcoming 2023 elections was enacted. Among the amendments Article 13 stands out for its clear statement on the importance of 50/50 political representation. Among the reforms related to the National Assembly included the abolition of registration fees for political parties which included 50% of women in their party lists and the abolition of the incise reinforcing discrimination against women living with disability. For the Senate, the reform mandated that in an electoral constituency with more than three seats, if no woman came in the right order to be proclaimed elected, a seat would be automatically allocated to the woman having obtained the greatest number of votes. Unfortunately, this reform failed.
President Felix Tshisekedi is described as a “Feminist President”. In 2019, his administration had 17% of women in state administrations and public enterprises. By 2023, the number had increased to 32%. During his first 5-year administration, women held positions such as deputy chief of staff and spokesperson (Tina Salama). Additionally, the Central Bank of Congo and the Ministries of Environment and Justice are led by women. Tshisekedi’s advocacy for women’s rights comes from his belief that female emancipation is critical to social development in the DRC.
While the Constitution of DRC establishes provides for equality, gender parity in political life and decision-making remains elusive. For example, the recently concluded presidential elections saw few female candidates. Initially, two women vied for the position. However, Joelle Bile Batali withdrew, leaving Marie-Jose Ifoku, former governor of Tshuapa Province, to go against 19 male candidates. The 2018 presidential elections painted a similar picture: only one female presidential candidate was competing against 20 men. Female candidates face the complex realities of sustaining an election campaign from limited financial resources and gender stereotypes. Moreover, the security situation in many parts of the country puts women candidates and voters at risk of intimidation, sexual abuse and violence. Security and development were among the key issues of importance to women voters.
Sexual exploitation and gender-based violence is prevalent in the country. For example, 42.8% of women in DRC are survivors of domestic violence and 27% of harmful traditional practices. Case of inequalities continue to permeate different areas of society; very few women have access to decent jobs, and women and girls are less likely to have access to education than men and boys. In the political field, women who wish to enter political institutions often encounter abuse, harassment, toxic masculinity, and gender stereotypes, which discourage them from applying for positions.
The DRC has undertaken several initiatives and passed legislation as part of its efforts to strengthen women’s rights in various areas. In September 2023, under President Felix Tshisekedi’s campaign flagship policies, the DRC implemented free maternity care for women. The measure is currently being implemented in public hospitals and health centres. It has been well received as it means the “difference between life and death of patients.
In 2016, the family code of 1987 was revised. The revised Code provides women with the right to choose where to live, sign a contract, get a job, and open a bank account were restricted and she was legally required to obey her husband. The revision of this code was made possible by women’s rights groups together with international actors who presented evidence of beneficial outcomes for Congolese society through increased economic opportunities for women, without any negative repercussions on family life and social cohesion. The elimination of marital authorisation for women’s access to employment, bank accounts, and loans, made it easier for women to explore new economic opportunities.
Civil society organisations and women's groups advocate for women's rights and sustainable peace in the country. Among the women's groups in the DRC who actively defend women's rights is Rien Sans Les Femmes (Nothing without Women). Based on the principle that there will be no peace or sustainable development in the country, the movement consists of more than 160 civil society organisations and Congolese activists. The movement actively works to attain equal gender representation in decision-making bodies. In 2015, the movement petitioned the Parliament to amend paragraph 4 of article 13 of the Electoral Law to read, "Failure to achieve parity between men and women constitutes grounds for inadmissibility of the list concerned". The petition received broad support and was handed over to the President of the National Assembly. Other organisations work on the prevention and protection of women and girls from sexual violence, peacebuilding and post-conflict recovery, among other issues.
Following the presidential and parliamentary elections held in December 2023, the incumbent, Felix Tshisekedi, was declared the winner with 73% of the votes. The Sacred Union of the Nation Coalition and its allies obtained the most seats in the National Assembly. The percentage of women directly and indirectly elected increased slightly after the 2023 elections. In the National Assembly, women obtained 12.2% of the seats in 2023 compared to 10% in 2018. In the Senate, women’s representation rose from 21.3% in 2018 to 23.85% in 2023.
Although women’s representation has increased moderately in both houses of the legislature and the DRC has adopted legislation and implemented measures to advance women’s participation in decision-making processes, challenges remain. Women who enter public and political life face discrimination due to customs and norms, intimidation and sexual and gender-based violence, for example. They often lack financial and other support from their political parties. Nevertheless, an increasing number of women are entering political life.
Congolese women’s groups, civil society organisations and activists actively push to strengthen women’s rights and achieve sustainable peace and development. Their advocacy has been vital for implementing Article 13 of the DRC Electoral Law on 50/50 gender-political representation. They also provide various forms of support to female politicians. The Congolese women’s rights groups, activists, and civil society organisations play a vital role in advancing women’s rights and holding the Congolese Government accountable for its commitments to gender equality.