Congo Brazzaville – Opposition calls for protests following presidential poll “marred by fraud”

President Denis Sassou Nguesso won reelection in the March 20 presidential election, securing a first round knock-out win with 60.4 percent of the votes, according to official results. The runner-up, Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, won 15.1 percent and General Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko came in third with 13.9 percent of the votes; five other candidates split the remainder of the votes. This outcome was not a huge surprise, given the conditions under which the poll took place. To protest against what they perceive as a fraudulent process, opposition leaders have called for a strike.

The election originally scheduled for July 2016, was moved up at Sassou’s Nguesso’s initiative, following the adoption of a new constitution by referendum in October 2015. This constitution “sur mesure,” designed to fit Sassou Nguesso, removes the 70 year age limit (the incumbent turned 70 in November 2013). The new constitution has also changed the duration of presidential terms from 7 to 5 years, for a total of three terms. This is another convenient change for Sassou Nguesso who was coming to the end of his second 7-year term, hitting the two term-limit under the 2002 constitution. Interestingly, the new constitution transitioned Congo Brazzaville from a presidential to a semi-presidential system by providing for a prime minister who can be voted out of office by the National Assembly (Art. 160) – though it requires a two thirds majority of deputies to pass a no-confidence vote and the president can respond by dissolving the legislature and call for new elections (Art. 162).

Voting and counting for the presidential poll took place under a complete telecommunications blackout. Phone and internet providers were asked by the government to shut down service “for reasons of security and tranquility.” The European Union had declined to send a delegation to observe the election, stating that electoral reform adopted in January 2016 did not guarantee a democratic, inclusive and transparent presidential poll.  Also, moving up the election date made it impossible to substantially improve on the quality of the voter registry, threatening the credibility of the election results. The African Union did send an observer delegation headed by former Prime Minister of Djibouti Dileita Mohamed Dileita. The AU delegation found that moving up the date compromised the proper organization of the election, indicating in its preliminary statement that the early election date “didn’t give opposition parties the time necessary to prepare for the polls.” In a press statement, the United States State Department noted “numerous reports of irregularities that have raised concerns about the credibility of the process.” The Socialist Party in France (the party of President Francois Hollande) put it more bluntly: it finds the results published by “a notoriously biased election commission” not credible.

To protest against an election they say was marred by fraud, five of the eight candidates who ran against Sassou Nguesso have called for civil disobedience, asking citizens to stay home to observe a “ville morte” (ghost town). On March 29th, neighborhoods in the southern part of the capital Brazzaville that are known to be opposition strongholds, such as Bacongo and Marché Total, were largely deserted and stores shuttered. In contrast, in the northern suburbs and downtown, it was largely business as usual. In other words, Congo was “half dead” for the day, according to a local news agency.

The secretary general of the ruling Parti congolais du travail (PCT), Pierre Ngolo, has called on the opposition to channel its electoral complaints through the legal process. According to the electoral code this can be done within a 15 day period after the announcement of results – that is until April 7th. This is not necessarily a promising prospect in a country where the rule of law is weak, the judiciary is underfunded and subject to political influence, and where the courts overturned the election of four out of seven candidates belonging to the opposition party UPADS in the 2012 legislative polls.

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