Elections in Congo. Yes, but which, when, and how?

Amidst the publication of a (partial) electoral calendar by Abbé Malu-Malu, head of DRC’s Commission Nationale Eléctorale Indépendante (CENI), discussions over the country’s upcoming round of polls once more flared up. On this issue, Kris Berwouts and Manya Riche have provided a nice detailed backgrounder for African Arguments this week. In general, most of the ideas, observations, and scenarios mentioned are comprehensible and based on the authors’ research. However, there is a few more aspects relevant to the issue that have not been mentioned in this otherwise enlightening piece. But first a short overview over the state of the art:

Over the years of his presidency, incumbent Joseph Kabila has become rousingly unpopular in many parts of the country, Kinshasa in particular. In the capital, the government has there gone as far a publishing street ads with the president’s face and the slogan “Si vous ne croyez pas en mrs paroles, croyez au moins en mes œuvres”. Obviously a statement indicating Kabila’s potential intention to seek an extension of his presidency, ornate with an irony that few observers would have ascribed to the often silent and timid leader. Whether this ‘charme offensive’ will help, given that massive attempts to regain popularity by harvesting the patriotic wave pursuant to M23’s defeat have been not very successful in provoking a general tide in favour of Kabila’s continuation.

Now, CENI has published a plan to hold local, municipal, and urban (henceforth ‘local’ only for simplicity) elections from June to October 2015. In numerous background discussions with government, opposition, diplomats, and the UN a few interesting dynamics and tendencies turned out to be worth following up in regards to these elections as well as the not yet announced presidential polls.

The local elections remain a big stumbling block and despite CENI’s budgetary announcements, it is far from clear how they will be financed. Comparing the envisaged amount of 300 million US dollars for these elections with budgets for the presidential elections in 2011, for instance, it is unlikely whether the planned budget will suffice to run the polls. Moreover, the election of around 25,000-30,000 state representatives at various levels (groupements, chefferies, localités, villes, etc.) brings about a high increase in government salaries that will have to be paid (or not). If any of these new civil servants will just be paid a hundred dollars a months this already means at least 30 million dollars per annum, and that is a definitely low estimate. If the central government (by whomever it may be run in the near future…) fails in paying such salaries, the door will be wide open for additional practises of arbitrary taxation and extortions.

Not enough, the local election bear a few further hitches. In many provinces across the DRC, the administrative delineations are foggy and contested. This is partly due to discrepancies between Kinshasa’s central registers of administrative boundaries which does not always reflect local realities but also connects to overlapping sovereignties between state and customary power. That in turn favours the risk of delegitimisation. Wherever local power is enmeshed in struggles over de-facto authority (and there is loads of such areas, not only in the Kivu provinces…), various kinds of political entrepreneurs are likely to use local elections for the consolidation of their influence vis-à-vis to contenders. While CENI is optimistic that local elections will enhance the legitimacy of political representation across DRC, potential fights over positions can spur intra- and inter-community strife if these pitfalls are not addressed beforehand through thorough mediation and sensitisation. Especially in terms of land tenure and access to resources, the current overlaps of customary and state power can turn the local elections into a battlefield for vested interests.

The presidential elections, though not yet announced and relatively far away, are again a complete different challenge. Scenarios on this have sufficiently been discussed by the aforementioned Berwouts/Riche and others, so most of them will not be reiterated here. Still, a few aspects are worth mentioning. Perhaps most crucial, in procedural and legal terms, the (in-)famous article 220 of DRC’s constitution. It states that all other articles relating to the term limit (twice five years), the mode of election (universal ballot), and a few other regulations are unchangeable. This has been sufficiently debated in recent reporting and analysis. The neuralgic point however, is article 220 itself. In strict legal terms, this article only describes and unchangeable nature of the articles it refers to, but 220 itself (despite widespread “ne touche pas à mon 220” campaigns in DRC) could be modified. Several justifications for such a move are on the table. First of all, the second part of article 220, relating to the decentralisation that de facto does not exist so far could be taken as a means to argue the whole article needs to be ‘adapted to reality’. Much more simple, a legal argument that no point of the constitution protects 220 such as the latter protects other articles could legally hold value. Several sources within the presidential circles and outside observers have confirmed that plans are currently being made into this direction.

The natural follow-up question is of course, whether Kabila intends to seek a third mandate at all. Here again, sources close to the Congolese leadership and even different opposition leaders indicate that this may not be the case as such, but his entourage is adopting a mix of endorsement and pressure to make him stay. To understand this better, the path of explanation goes through Katanga. DRC’s richest province, well-known for a history of little successful secessionism, is currently divided at various fronts. The most obvious one is the cleavage between north and south (and here, south basically means around Lubumbashi and north the rest of the province). Paradoxically, both regions are rather unhappy with Kabila’s recent record of governance. The northerners complain ‘their president’ (Kabila’s family is from the so-called ‘triangle of death’ in Northern Katanga) has done little to develop their fief – which is certainly a valid statement, while the southerners remain in historical antagonism and therefore oppose the president. Insiders though, bring forward the interesting point that despite limited support of both the major Katangan factions will probably favour a continuation of Kabila’s presidency over any successor, given their fears of being more marginalised (northerners) or ripped off of their lucrative businesses (southerners). While there is a few other Katanga dynamics to consider in this gamble (the role of Bakata Katanga, the role of CORAK and/or Kyungu wa Kumwanza, the ability  of Moise Katumbi to maintain stability between north and south, etc.), this hints at a slight pro-Kabila tendency when it comes to the presidential question.

Across the whole country, and looking back at Kinshasa again, a few other layers will likely turn out to be important as elections, or at least – their constitutional date, approach. Looking at the opposition, the picture remains highly fractionalised. UDPS leader Etienne Tshisekedi, for years the most dangerous challenger to Joseph Kabila, is currently in hospital in Kinshasa, and unlikely to be a contender if elections take place. Much will depend on how his son Felix Tshisekedi will approach the heritage of Limété’s political eminence. Then, and especially since the ‘concentrations nationales, many opposition parties including UDPS have been weakened through a de-facto co-optation by the government. The new government, announced more than half a year ago but never introduced ever since, will enlighten this further in case it actually materialises at some point. The grand lines suggest one major divide – those co-opted and those not. The latter part is led by UNC and its leader Vital Kamerhe. As of now he seems the most powerful and most credible real opposition candidate in case elections happen anytime soon, but Kamerhe still lacks a nation-wide support base which he will have to create by smart alliance-building with other actors such as Fayulu, MLC politicians, and other potential partners.

Interesting times ahead in terms of both local and presidential elections in DRC. In Kinshasa at least, tensions are slightly rising and conspiracy theories gain currency while various political actors are busily preparing the forthcoming events.


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