We should be glad the PCC elections are so dull

Which of the nebulous promises of less crime and more policemen enthuses you to turn up to vote?

As the results of the first elections to the position of police and crime commissioner come in, the over-riding impression is that nobody gives a shit.

Turnout in Wiltshire, the first of the areas to declare, was just 15.7 per cent – lower than any national election since 1918, and lower than any individual constituency result in a general election since 1945. Meanwhile, Stuart Wilks-Heeg, of the independent research organisation Democratic Audit, reports that at least three polling stations had exactly zero voters, which sounds like it could be a first.

But perhaps we ought to be thankful that the public is showing so much apathy.

A brief glance at the election statements of candidates shows how hard it is to stand out. One explicitly promises to "reduce crime by 20%"; another vaguely claims he will "put victims at the heart of the criminal justice process". Some didn't even write forward-looking statements at all, instead focusing entirely on their past: "17 years of local authority experience… 24 years of managing a successful business… Police Neighbourhood Tasking group chair".

There is nothing stopping people running entirely on claims that "I have done a good job in the past, so I will probably do a good job in the future" – although it does raise the question of why we bothered to switch from job interviews, which are normally predicated on that sort of claim anyway – but the problem is, it leaves the position vulnerable to candidates running on more interesting platforms.

The entire reasoning behind PCC elections is basically that there are low-hanging fruit of innovative policing techniques which the "career coppers" haven't been able to spot because they're too disconnected from the real world. The problem is that if that turns out not to be true – if policing is, broadly, done as well as it can be – then the low-hanging fruit turns out to be rotten.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the elected sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. He was first elected in November 1992, and has held the post for 21 years straight. In that time, Arpaio has hit the press for:

To be clear, many of these problems are as much to do with America and its third-world jail system as they are to do with Joe Arpaio and the process of electing police chiefs. But to suggest that elections will introduce "accountability" into the process, when someone like Arpaio has been re-elected five times, is nothing more than wishful thinking.

The best we can hope for with PCC elections is a continuation of dull, technocratic manifestos leading to minuscule turnout along party lines – because the methods people might use to really stoke up the electorate don't bear thinking about.

An inmate at Maricopa County Jail. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage