The presidential campaign in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was launched on Thursday, November 22, one month ahead of the December 23 presidential poll. While the ruling coalition is well prepared and ready for the fight, the opposition is trying to catch up from behind. Months of opposition efforts at uniting behind a single candidate have thus far been unsuccessful.
The United Front for Congo (FCC), the electoral coalition backing President Joseph Kabila’s handpicked candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, is indeed united. The FCC has pulled all the stops, including enlisting famed Congolese dancer and singer Tshala Muana to produce a get-out-the vote jingle and music video calling on Congolese to ‘vote vote vote for Shadary, candidate number 13.’ [See previous blog posts relating Kabila’s clever maneuvering to secure support for his chosen contender here and here.] A 564-member campaign team working for Shadary includes sitting Prime Minister Bruno Tshibala and his cabinet, the president of the national assembly, Kabila family members and a number of other well-known Congolese. The impressive line-up presented at a public ceremony on November 3, is divided into 48 ‘cells’ with representation from all 26 provinces, covering the entire country. Some of the alleged members of the campaign team, like the trainer of the national football team Floribert Ibenge, have complained, however, that their name was added to the roster without their consent. A leading opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, has called the apparent fusion of state and party, with major state institutions at work for the ruling party’s candidate, ‘inacceptable.’
The opposition despite significant efforts, remains divided in two major camps – one backing Fayulu, the other supporting Felix Tshisekedi, son of historical opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi who passed away in 2017. For a short 24-hour period it appeared that the leaders of the seven major opposition parties had succeeded in agreeing to support a unity candidate – Martin Fayulu – as the flag bearer of the Lamuka (“wake up” in Lingala and Swahili) coalition. The seven leaders met for three days in Geneva in early November to negotiate an agreement, hosted by the Kofi Annan Foundation. Three of the leaders – Moise Katumbi, Jean-Pierre Bemba and Adolphe Muzito – are excluded from running as candidates, leaving four possible choices: front-runners Felix Tshisekedi (UDPS) and former President of the National Assembly Vital Kamerhe (UNC); and second tier candidates Fayulu (ECiDé) and Freddy Matungulu (CNB). With 41 seats, the UDPS is the second largest party in the National Assembly of the DRC, after the ruling PPRD, followed in sixth place by the UNC (with 17 seats), while ECiDé (3 seats) and CNB (0 seats) are smaller parties whose leaders have not held prominent positions in Congolese politics. Fayulu is currently a National Assembly deputy, and Matungulu is a former IMF-official who served a two-year stint as minister of finance in the early 2000s.
The method chosen to facilitate a vote among the seven opposition leaders meeting in Geneva, after a consensus candidate did not emerge, had the unexpected consequence of Fayulu’s selection. A two-round vote was held: only the four eligible candidates could vote in the first round, casting two ballots – one for himself and one for one of the other three. None of the four chose to cast his second ballot for his perceived strongest competitor, resulting in Fayulu and Matungulu getting the most votes and proceeding to the second round – an outcome that should perhaps have been foreseen, taking the likelihood of strategic voting into consideration. On November 11, in the second round, all seven opposition party leaders, including the three banned from running, cast their vote, leading to the selection of Fayulu.
The choice of Fayulu as single candidate for the opposition did not survive the realities of Congolese politics, however. Upon their return to Kinshasa, Tshisekedi and Kamerhe were met by demonstrations by their respective party bases and within 24 hours both withdrew from the Geneva agreement. The two pursued bilateral negotiations, and on Friday November 23, they signed a pact in Nairobi whereby Kamerhe will support Tshisekedi. According to the agreement, should Tshisekedi win, he will appoint Kamerhe as prime minister, and the two would switch places on the presidential ticket in five years time. The detailed deal references also the distribution of key cabinet and other posts.
It is thus likely that three leading candidates will face off in the one-round presidential poll on December 23 – Shadary, Fayulu and Tshisekedi. Of these, Tshisekedi appears best poised to win, according to a recent opinion poll by the Congo Research Group based at the University of New York, whose findings are contested by the ruling party. The poll, conducted in the first half of October, found Tshisekedi to be favored by 36% of voters, followed by Kamerhe at 17% and Shadary close behind at 16%, while Fayulu trailed at 8%. The agreement with Kamerhe further strengthens Tshisekedi’s chances.
The scene is set for a hard fought race. Election observers – many to be deployed by the Catholic Church – and party agents will play an important role in increasing the transparency and credibility of the vote in a context characterized by consistent opposition concerns over the integrity of the voter registry and the reliability of the electronic voting machine introduced by the election commission.