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Since the 2006 elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) there have been several developments in opposition politics creating what appears to be a vastly changed political landscape, ahead of elections planned for November this year.
In 2006 President Kabila’s principal opposition came from the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC). The MLC candidate, Jean-Pierre Bemba, received 20% of the votes to Kabila’s (PPRD) 45%. The remainder of the votes were shared among the smaller opposition parties, Antoine Gizenga receiving 13%, Nzanga Mobutu 5% and Oscar Kashala 4%. As the 2011 election date approaches it has become increasingly evident that most of these opposition figures have vanished from the political landscape over the past five years. This poses serious questions about the challenge the opposition will be able to mount against Kabila’s re-election in November.
The principal opposition in 2006, the MLC, has suffered serious damage since then, not least of all Bemba’s arrest by the ICC in 2008. The party probably inflicted another wound on itself in April 2011, when it ousted Secretary General Francois Muamba. He has been replaced by Thomas Luhaka who has been given the unenviable task of restructuring the party in the run-up to the November elections. The decision to replace Muamba is likely to have far-reaching implications for party unity as there are several senior members who believe he was unfairly dismissed. Though the situation may be smoothed over before November, it remains possible that the MLC will split, further fracturing of an already divided opposition.
Antoine Gizenga, Secretary-General of the Unified Lumumbist Party (PALU), signed an agreement after the first round of presidential elections in 2006 promising to back Kabila in the second round of elections. Following Kabila’s victory in 2006, Gizenga went on to become Prime Minister, but resigned in 2008. Since Gizenga’s absorbtion into Kabila’s government in 2006 PALU has not played a substantial role in the DRC opposition.
Nzanga Mobutu, chairman of the Union of Mobutist Democrats (UDEMO), and son of former president Mobutu SeseSeko, received 5% of the votes in 2006 and, like Gizenga backed Kabila in the second round of elections and subsequently gained a position in Kabila’s government. Mobutu spent the majority of his time outside of the DRC and as a result lost his position in government, and most likely his support base in the North Western Equateur province.
Oscar Kashala is the National President of the Union for the Rebuilding of Congo or Union pour la Reconstruction du Congo (UREC). He received only 4% of the vote in the first round of the 2006 elections. Kashala is relatively popular among the diaspora but is not well-known inside the country, having studied and worked abroad for most of the time until he emerged on the DRC political scene in 2005. Kashala’s policies seem to resonate with many Congolese people but his greatest handicap seems to be his lack of visibility domestically.
Since 2006 veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of the Union for Democracy and Social progress (UPDS), who boycotted the previous elections on the grounds of irregularities, seems to have re-emerged. Unfortunately for UPDS the 2006 strategy backfired leaving the party with no representation in the current government. Tshisekedi is respected for the role he has played as a champion for democracy over the past three decades and has a good chance of garnering substantial support in November. Despite his reputation for integrity and principle, gained during his long opposition to Mobutu and the Kabilas, father and son, he is now advanced in years and may find it difficult to forge tactical alliances with other contenders.
Another addition to the 2011 race for the top spot in the DRC is former PPRD member Vital Kamerhe, sometime Speaker of the National Assembly, Minister of Information, and Honorary President of the National Assembly. In 2004 Kamerhe ran a very successful campaign for Kabila in the Eastern DRC, and in 2011 is planning to run for his own party, the relatively new Union pour la Nation Congolaise (UNC), whose candidate he will be in the 2011 presidential elections.
Following the shifts in the Congolese political landscape since 2006, it would seem that the favorites in 2011 election race are incumbent president Joseph Kabila and opposition veteran Etienne Tshisekedi and, to a lesser extent perhaps, Vital Kamerhe and Oscar Kashala. The general consensus seems to be that there is a high probability of Kabila being re-elected. Kabila’s chances improved dramatically when the Congolese constitution was amended in early January 2011 resulting in the scrapping of the second round of elections. The reaction of the opposition to this change and their subsequent inability to form a common strategy against the ruling party is likely to thwart them in November. Personalities and individual ambitions appear to enjoy a higher priority than policy or even peoples’ interests, which begs the question, ‘would an opposition party offer the Congolese people more than the current ruling party?’
The hopes that many people entertained in 2006 of the introduction of democracy after decades of civil strife, have largely remained unrealized. After five years of ‘democracy’ there is a mounting frustration among the millions of Congolese who are no better off today than they were during the civil wars. Corruption, poor or no service delivery and continued violence, particularly in the East, remain the order of the day. Etienne Tshisekedi stated at a political rally in April that any delay in the elections beyond what was constitutionally allowed would be unacceptable, and he is not alone in his thinking. On the technical side however, the country is unprepared for elections, and should they go ahead they are likely to be flawed.
This could create a very dangerous environment in which the prospect for change through the ballot box becomes discredited and the temptation of continued low-level political violence is further entrenched. The international donors, who will have to carry much of the financial burden for the electoral exercise, have no interest in encouraging such a failure. They may even be tempted to advise a delay in the polls, regardless of the constitutional implications of such a postponement. It would seem fair to say that at present the international community is deeply disappointed at the returns on its investment in the DRC’s political and economic recovery, but it would be fair to ask, what alternatives do they suggest?
Written by Melanie Roberts, ISS coordinator for l’Observatoire de l’Afrique, Peace Missions Programme, ISS Pretoria Office