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The President's Take

The Promise and Pitfalls of High-stakes Elections

In his introduction to this month's edition of CrisisWatch, Crisis Group's conflict tracker, our President Robert Malley sees uncertainities in Democratic Republic of Congo and indicators of escalation in Venezuela and Nigeria.

An election widely regarded as illegitimate throws a country deeper into crisis. Another rigged one soils what could have been a historic transition. A third raises fears of violence and bloodshed. This past month proved once more that, handled well, voting can be a time to celebrate the expression of popular will, but handled poorly can also be a moment when dangerous social and political tensions come to the fore.

In Venezuela, President Maduro’s catastrophic political and economic mismanagement have immiserated the country, brought back once-eradicated diseases, and led to the mass exodus of some 3 million citizens. His re-election last May in a contest deemed both unfree and unfair triggered growing international opprobrium. On a tide of popular protests and unrest, and supported by Washington and numerous Latin American countries, Juan Guaidó, the opposition head of the National Assembly, claimed the mantle of interim president on 23 January.

A scenario in which Maduro is edged or thrown out of office by disaffected allies or a worried military remains possible. But it is not necessarily the most likely prospect. Maduro, buoyed by his allies’ support – domestic and international – could hang on; he has co-opted much of the military hierarchy and they might not trust Guaidó’s reassuring words about amnesty. Should the status quo persist, the new U.S.-imposed oil sanctions could prove devastating to average Venezuelans; popular unrest could be met with forceful repression which, in turn, could trigger a U.S. military intervention. Even as an increasing number of countries recognise Guaidó as the legitimate president, others need to keep the door open for dialogue, mediation and a negotiated transition leading to fair elections.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), meanwhile, witnessed a singular event: an election that the regime threw to an opposition leader – only not the one who actually won. This marred what was in fact the first ever peaceful transfer of power in the country’s history. African and European governments briefly suggested they would not accept the result and demand a recount, but the posture was short-lived. That’s not the end of the story, however. What matters now is what the new president, Félix Tshisekedi, does. He has promised to free political prisoners, a welcome start. But the tests before him will be many and the first will be whether he can signal his independence from the former regime despite the fact that the alliance formed by former President Kabila controls parliament and the security services. It will be partly up to the DRC’s international partners to help edge him away from his predecessor’s grasp.

Presidential and federal parliamentary elections are due this month in Nigeria, a country where polling traditionally comes hand-in-hand with rising tensions. Already, election-related violence has occurred, with armed thugs aligned with political parties attacking their opponents’ rallies, campaign offices and vehicles. This is occurring against the backdrop of growing insecurity, continued attacks by jihadist groups in the north east and a recent surge of deadly herders/farmers conflict. To avoid the worse will require that security forces and the courts steer clear of any partisanship, that Nigeria’s leaders tone down their rhetoric, that they abide by their commitment to challenge results lawfully as opposed to in the streets – and that Nigeria’s partners pressure them to take those steps.

Finally, I cannot but mention that the arbitrary detention in China of our colleague Michael Kovrig is soon entering its third month. The uncertainty over his fate weighs ever more heavily on his family, his friends, his colleagues. Michael has been caught in the middle of an increasingly brutal battle opposing China and the U.S. He should not be made to pay the price.