President Joseph Kabila’s second term comes to an end in December 2016. With the presidential election still nearly two years away, his supporters have already tested various options for a possible extension of Kabila’s mandate beyond the constitutional two-term limit. The term-limit issue is, however, proving to be highly divisive, including within the ruling coalition.
A simple revision of term-limits – similar to what Blaise Compaoré attempted in Burkina Faso – is not an option in the DRC: the constitution (Art. 220) stipulates that “the number and the duration of the mandates of the President of the Republic … cannot be made the object of any constitutional revision.” To revise term-limits would require adopting a new constitution or, alternatively, changing regime type by amending Arts. 70 and 71 to provide for indirect rather than direct election of the president, as in South Africa. Changing the mode of designation of the president would, arguably, reset the term clock to zero, allowing Kabila to present himself for election by the legislature for two new terms.
The adoption of a brand new constitution has the support of some stalwarts within the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Development (PPRD) who consider the existing fundamental text an illegitimate compromise between belligerent parties in the DRC’s civil war. Thus, in March 2014, the National Secretary of the PPRD, Claude Mashala, initiated a petition for a new “dynamic” constitution, better reflecting the needs for “national cohesion.” Undeterred by the Burkina experience, Mashala reportedly declared in November having attained the 100,000 signatures required to initiate a referendum, with his team working on regrouping the signatures by province before submission to the legislature. There are, however, also opponents within the presidential coalition to constitutional change, including prominent figures such as Senate President Kengo Wa Dondo and the powerful governor of Kabila’s home province of Katanga, Moise Katumbi.
On a separate track, in September the government introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow for the indirect election of provincial councilors (Art. 197). The proposal was met with staunch resistance by the political opposition, civil society and the Catholic Church, who saw this move as a ploy to change the mode of election of the president by the same stroke.
Still pending, this proposed constitutional revision was overshadowed by the adoption on January 17, 2015 by the National Assembly of electoral reform that could have led to a sliding of the presidential election into 2017 or later. The bill provided for a new census to be completed before the poll, to serve as the basis for the voter list. The government spokesperson, Lambert Mendé, admitted that if passed into law by both houses of the legislature, the bill could entail a delay of the presidential election “without the sky falling on our heads.”
In an already tense environment, the prospect of Kabila playing for overtime triggered widespread demonstrations in Kinshasa as well as Bukavu and Goma in eastern DRC. Police forces and the Republican Guard cracked down violently on protesters, killing as many as 42 people according to the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), a number contested by the government. The protest dynamic was distinct this time from previous demonstrations mainly initiated by political parties, as argued by Jason Stearns. Notably, the manifestations were more decentralized, university students played a greater role in both Kinshasa and Bukavu, and the homes of individual Kabila supporters were targeted. Social media also played an active part. This protest dynamic is reminiscent of the Burkinabe uprising that brought Compaoré down. The stand-off moreover shone a full light on divisions within the ruling elite.
In a declared move to respond to the people’s demands, the Senate removed the contentious language from the bill referring to the need for a census ahead of the presidential poll and included reference to the election taking place in accordance with the constitutionally mandated timetable. Senate President Kengo Wa Dondo used the opportunity of the directly televised Senate session to take on the mantle of savior of the constitution. Ultimately, the final version of the bill that was passed into law on January 25 by both houses makes no mention of the census requirement, but also does not include direct reference to the timetable laid down by the constitution.
The coming months are likely to see more of such tug-of-war between those who do and those who don’t favor an extension of Kabila’s stay in office. The diplomatic community has come out clearly against changing term limits, but the real test will lie in the internal balance of forces and tactics on either side.