The last time the Congolese population took part in a presidential election was Nov. 2011. The vote which secured Joseph Kabila a second mandate as president was staggeringly flawed, but at least it happened. The electorate should be preparing to cast their ballots once again in a little under two months but the work to organize the 2016 poll simply hasn’t been done.
The DRC’s authorities have blamed various logistical and financial difficulties for their failure to hold the election but most Congolese detect the crude political machinations of an incumbent approaching the end of a constitutionally limited two-term presidency. It has long been clear to Kabila’s adversaries that they will not get the opportunity to vote this year but their worst fears were realized in May when a pliant constitutional court determined that the president must remain in office until the election of his successor.
The court’s judges are appointed, directly or indirectly, by Kabila and its decision has been furiously disputed but the president’s supporters energetically wave the ruling as legal justification for a prolonged mandate. The key question has become: just how long will Kabila’s second term last?
The answer has recently become clearer. Since early September, a platform of opposition parties has been engaged in a dialogue with a delegation from the president’s ruling alliance. The forum is supposed to be an inclusive exercise aimed at producing an agreement which sets out a roadmap to credible elections and establishes a government of national unity to manage the transition. The opposition accepts that the vote won’t be taking place in 2016 but so far has insisted that any agreement it signs must fix a date during 2017 for the next presidential election.
It came as a blow therefore when, on Oct. 1, Corneille Nangaa, the president of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), gave a presentation to the dialogue claiming that he could not organize the election before late Nov. 2018—at the very earliest. As with the constitutional court, many cast doubt on the independence of the CENI.
In public, Kabila’s delegation has maintained a studious detachment. It claims that the CENI is an independent institution with sole authority for setting the electoral calendar and it would be improper to interfere with its workings. The opposition, however, is incensed. According to Jean-Lucien Bussa, a parliamentarian and delegate, CENI’s proposal ‘is technically unjustified and politically unsupportable’. He adds that ‘The agreement must set the date of the presidential election and it must be a date during 2017’.
Another opposition delegate, who preferred to speak anonymously, said that the presentation had triggered intense private negotiations both within his delegation and with the president’s team. He confessed a ‘strong fear’ that the Congolese people would not accept an agreement which acquiesces to a presidential election in 2018, a preoccupation all the more acute in light of clashes in Kinshasa on 19 and 20 September between anti-Kabila protesters and security forces which left more than 50 dead.
While Bussa’s delegation is now in a tricky situation—does it fold, fight or walk away?—a larger coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement can feel justified in boycotting the talks from the outset, dismissing them as ‘pseudo-dialogue’ and a ‘monologue’.
For Jean-Marc Kabund, the secretary general of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, the largest party in the Rassemblement, ‘This proposal doesn’t surprise us as the CENI is an instrument of Kabila’s regime for glissement [the French word for ‘slippage’ which Congolese use to refer to Kabila’s efforts to delay elections and extend his presidency]’.
Freddy Matungulu, an IMF economist who has established a political party and joined the Rassemblement, expects that the opposition delegation at the dialogue ‘will compromise if that’s what it takes for them to become a part of the government’. The Rassemblement has adopted an implacable stance. Kabila must quit power on Dec. 19 or will be considered guilty of high treason. The CENI’s board must resign.
The CENI defends its timetable by pointing to complex steps which still need to be completed: registering voters and candidates, the partition of constituency boundaries, ordering electoral materials and training electoral agents. But these technical rationalisations aren’t persuasive. In late September, the US embassy in Kinshasa convened a group of electoral experts, including former CENI officials, to discuss the situation. The meeting took place behind closed doors but two people present said that a consensus emerged from the session that holding elections before the end 2017 is entirely feasible – if the political will exists.
One participant, who spoke anonymously, stated that ‘Nangaa is abusing his expertise to induce political actors into making a mistake’ and described CENI as no longer ‘a technical institution in the service of democracy’. The source concluded that ‘the experts came from diverse backgrounds [but] all agreed that contrary to what CENI says it is still possible to reduce the period of transition to organize free and peaceful elections’.
The length of the delay promoted by CENI (and quietly supported by Kabila’s delegation) has reinforced deeply held suspicions that the president desires a third term and plans to use the interval to tinker with the constitution. One of Kabila’s most senior advisers has flatly denied the existence of such a scheme and has assured an anxious nation that the president merely wishes to ensure that the DRC is ready for elections before he relinquishes office. The introverted Kabila, however, has abstained from offering any clarification about his plans for the future. As long as that doesn’t change, and there is no indication that it will, he will continue to provoke an increasingly fed up population.