Recently, I’ve been bingeing this political drama on Netflix called Borgen, which is cool because it’s a Danish show, which means they speak Danish in it, and it’s a funny sounding language. This obviously also means that it’s about Danish politics, which I had initially expected to mostly involve treating indigenous people like shit and sitting around being pissed they didn’t think of IKEA first. But this show gets pretty fucking wild; crazy shit goes down every episode and it’s really entertaining to hear people speak Danish intensely, it’s like listening to stressed out forest sprites or something.
Sorry I keep minimizing your culture, Denmark, but this article really isn’t about you, and I don’t have time or column inches to spend on setting up more nuanced stereotypes. The reason I brought it up is actually just that the show does what I think is a really good job of showing the way that real power, the type that yields real political influence, is dealt with at a large scale.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still TV, so some parts are definitely a little overdramatic, but the way every decision in Borgen has to be made quickly and have all these insane consequences got me thinking about what it must be like to make a decision like that in real life. It must be off-putting, at least upon reflection, to find yourself in a position where your choices have such a disproportionate effect on other people’s lives.
Of course it is the fundamental flaw of democracy that, even though equality is the end goal, there will always be those with power over others because that gap is the only way we can figure out how to organize ourselves — it’s why Churchill said that “Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms.” He also said he “hated Indians,” so, you know, you win some, you lose some.
At least we didn't lose to the Nazis though
Anyway, in progressive parts of the world, we worship ideas that endeavour to close the gap between those with and without power, but in many places, the reality is that a great many lives depend on very few decisions.
Nowhere has this been on fuller display in recent years than in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In the last couple months, president Felix Tshisekedi has moved to edge out the influence of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, in national politics. Since Tshisakedi took over power from the autocrat in early 2019, he says his attempts to push through much needed reforms and corruption investigations have been blocked by Kabila-allied parliamentarians, whose Common Front for Congo (FCC) party still controlled a majority in parliament and key ministries until recently.
Tshisekedi championed a late January parliamentary vote to censure the FCC-led coalition’s pick for prime minister, Sylvestre Ilunga. The vote of no confidence removed him from his position, dissolving the Kabila-allied cabinet and dealing the death-blow to the coalition with the FCC. By the way, by “championed,” I mean he straight Jeff Dunham marionette string, J. Edgar in a Dallas bookstore, Leonard Bernstein orchestrated that shit.
In the end, on January 27th, hundreds of FCC members of parliament crossed to back Tshisekedi’s newly proposed coalition, a feat of political maneuvering so dramatic it makes Italy look like New Zealand in comparison. He had a little bit of help though, I should say, from the political culture of the DRC, which includes a concept called “la transhumance politique.” It’s a term that’s been around a long time and it describes a traditional lack of loyalty among congolese politicians — The Economist reported rumours that you can “buy an MP for anywhere between $7,000 and $15,000,” or about as much as it costs those Saudi billionaires to fly in hot girls to shit on their chest. Look it up.
And that doesn’t even consider the countless corruption cases that had been allowed to flourish under Kabila, and that Tshisekedi is able to use as leverage against any given disobedient parliamentarian. So buying or scaring a mob of amoeboid politicians into voting with you might not be entirely representative of the type of shady, backroom, House of Cards before Kevin Spacey came out as gay-style juice that I hyped up at the beginning, but don’t you fret, because there’s a lot more where that came from. Strap in, because it’s rigged election time.
Poverty in the DRC is rampant. There are a lot of people who are very poor, and significant international financial aid is contingent upon certain guarantees that had included the removal of Kibala-allied ministers, and corruption among politicians has become systemic. Conflict between militias, often ethnically motivated, also plagues the large country, concentrated in territories along the Eastern border with Uganda and Rwanda. Despite the obvious need for significant reform, when Tshisekedi won in 2018, he was not the main candidate of change.
That title belonged to Martin Fayulu, a more ambitious and more popular opposition figure. He had been the favourite to win, according to opinion polls provided for the Congo Research Group, a New York think tank. In January of 2019, the Financial Times as well as the CRG received leaked data from the country’s electoral commission and the Catholic Church, which reportedly deployed 40,000 election monitors to all 75,000 polling stations, and the influence of which has remained strong in the DRC, with 40% of a population of 80 million counting among its members. That data showed that Fayulu won, big time.
Opposition leader Martin Fayulu
It should be noted however, that these results were only ever leaked, and never reported publicly. You might be wondering at this point why then, if the election was rigged, did Kibala not just secure the win for himself. There are a couple of answers for this, but the easiest way to put it is that people were tired of him. He had been in power since the death of his father in 2001, and in 2015, when he attempted to push through a bill that was perceived to be helping him skirt term limits (again), student-led protests broke out, which quickly turned violent and led to 42 deaths according to rights group International Federation for Human Rights. (The government disputes this number, hurr durr).
So, in 2018, Kibala opted not to plunge his country into complete chaos, and instead had a different member of his party run for president, but when it became clear that that dude had not even close to a reasonable shot, he opted for plan B. Allegedly, Tshisekedi and Kibala struck a secret back room deal to secure the former the presidency, and the latter a favourable cabinet.
That’s the type of shit I’m talking about; the Machiavelli wet dream decision that could end a fucking Netflix season. And they pulled it off.
Despite the leaked results, neither the international community, nor the catholic church put up much of a fight against the DRC’s constitutional court’s decision to uphold the election results following a challenge from Fayulu. Analysts chalk the decision up to fears of more violence which may have been imminent, especially if the catholic church had decided to make a fuss, and a desire to support the DRC’s first ever peaceful transition of power. By the way, the fact that the catholic church is still relevant to modern politics that don’t involve children is super disorienting to me. It’s like finding out the Queen is still relevant to something that doesn’t involve children.
Some Congolese Catholics, according to Google Images
Anyway, both Tshisekedi and Kibala’s decisions to strike that deal, as well as the church’s decision not to intervene are deeper examples of the uneven distribution of power that exists in unstable democracies. The tension in the rooms where those decisions were made held the weight of thousands of lives, and these couldn’t have been easy to make. Especially the decision to maintain a peaceful transition of power, despite such obvious bullshittery.
The DRC was next in line to hold the chair of the African Union and violence, poverty, and terrorism surely would have proliferated under disputed government, especially if that government is also at the head of the AU, which runs aid and peacekeeping operations in dozens of member countries. So, on the one hand I respect the decision to remain silent for the sake of peace.
I don’t fuck with undemocratic elections, but sometimes I forget how much of a privilege it is to hold that opinion, and to voice it. It’s easy to sit up here in Canada, where people don’t die from protests unless they’re indigenous, and encourage the citizens of less free countries to stand up for their rights at all costs. We don’t recognize what “all costs” actually means to real people with families and shit, who live in places where “looting” justifies lethal force, and “mass demonstrations” threaten mass casualties.
On the other hand though, a peaceful transition of power really does mean fuck all unless things start to change. Tshisekedi’s crackdown on corruption tends only to really rear its head when it benefits his interests, people are still very very poor, — like middle school presentation Africa poor — and violence in the East continues unabated. Just this past week, the Italian ambassador was killed in an attack on an aid convoy that the DRC says was carried out by an ethnic Hutu militia, which for its part denies wrongdoing and blames Rwanda and the DRC itself for the attack.
That’s how you know shit is serious: when a white dude dies. But for real, the turmoil in the DRC is an example of why we strive for all those eyeroll-inducing democratic values that Western politicians love to toss around so much. Because frankly, those juicy, TV style decisions, and crazy, 300 person power shifts, and backroom deals, and rigged elections belong on fucking TV. Not in real life, where people’s lives are on the line, and the catholic church is in danger of having a say again. Yikes.