With a two-year delay, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is finally preparing for a presidential election on December 23, 2018. The deadline for candidate declarations is August 8. Many observers still wonder whether term-limited President Joseph Kabila will find a way to run, though moves to adopt a new constitution or change key constitutional provisions have seemingly been abandoned [see earlier blog post about such moves here]. The smiling face of the president adorning huge billboards in Lubumbashi or printed on t-shirts in Kinshasa is not reassuring to his critics, who take it as an indication that “he wants to stay.” Kabila supporters from the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) pooh-pooh such concerns, arguing it is a way of celebrating the president’s achievements.
It is peculiar that with less than a month to go before the window for candidate submissions closes, the PPRD candidate is not yet known. Though the process for selecting that candidate remains opaque, it is clear there will not be an open primary election. According to André-Alain Atundu, spokesperson for the presidential majority, primaries contributed to destroying the Republican Party in the US and the Socialist Party in France. Kabila tightly controls the candidate selection process in an effort to manage political egos and “avoid a war in his political family,” in Atundu’s words.
On July 1, Kabila launched a formal coalition – the Common Front for Congo (FCC) – that will throw its support behind a single candidate for the ruling majority. Wise move, as the constitution was changed in 2011 to eliminate the requirement for a runoff in the event no candidate wins an absolute majority (Kabila was reelected with 49 percent of the votes later that year). Members of the FCC include parties and civil society structures currently represented in the government of national unity created following the political agreement of 31 December 2016, but is open to others. On July 7, the Unified Lumumbist Party (PALU) also signed on to the charter of the FCC, despite a move earlier in the year by PALU to join forces in the coming elections with two of the major opposition parties, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) of Jean-Pierre Bemba and the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) of Vital Kamerhe.
Under Kabila’s leadership, the FCC aims to run joint candidates with a common program at all levels of elections: presidential, legislative and regional elections that will all be held simultaneously. Remains to be seen who Kabila will favor as presidential candidate and whether the FCC will resist as the egos of those not selected are bruised. Potential choices include National Assembly President Aubin Minaku; former Prime Minister Matata Ponyo; Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, former vice prime minister for the interior, recently promoted to party secretary for the PPRD; and a number of possible outsiders.
On the opposition’s side, the front runners are easier to identify. Despite significant talk about the need for a single candidate to avoid splitting the vote, there is as yet no formal agreement on who that should be. The three top potential candidates are: Moise Katumbi, former governor of Katanga and former ally of Kabila, who has had his passport revoked and currently cannot return from Europe; Félix Thisekedi, son of historical opposition leader Etienne Thisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) who passed away last year; and Jean-Pierre Bemba, president of the MLC and former rebel leader, who came in second to Kabila in the 2006 presidential run-off. Bemba, who has served 10 years of prison in The Hague, was acquitted on appeal by the International Criminal Court on June 8 from charges for crimes against humanity. He has been promised a passport to return to the DRC by the Congolese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, the debate is on between lawyers in Kinshasa as to whether Bemba can register as candidate, given on the one hand his conviction for witness tampering at the ICC, and on the other the fact that he does not yet have a voter card – which is required to register. Finally, former President of the National Assembly Vital Kamerhe appears ready to back whoever emerges as the strongest opposition candidate.
If indeed an agreement is reached among opposition leaders on fielding a single candidate, how would such a consensus candidate be selected? Via a “mini primary” election, as Kamerhe has suggested, an idea also supported by Katumbi in the past? If so, who would vote and how would such a primary election be organized in time? The MLC party congress to take place on July 12-13 could provide a first good indication of the opposition’s ability to move ahead in unified rank, depending on whether the party opts to put forward its own candidate, and if so how other opposition parties react.
July 25 marks the start of the process for submitting candidates for the presidential and legislative elections. We can foresee two weeks of intense political maneuverings in both political camps between now and then.