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The Congolese opposition dilemma: Do we talk or walk?

There have been months of speculations in the Congo about how President Joseph Kabila will approach his own succession. According to the current constitution, he has to step down in December 2016. It is fairly clear, from various public statements (Emmanuel Shadari here, Alain-André Atundu here), as well as private comments, that members of the ruling coalition do not want to hold elections within this timeframe. And, given all the many delays in the elections calendar, they may be right: we are almost past the point when decent elections can still be held by the end of next year. Talking with electoral experts in Kinshasa, most think it will take at least 4-8 months––Jerôme Bonso, a leading civil society activist went so far as to say two years––just to update the voting register.

But it has never been clear whether Kabila is just playing for some more time––the glissement option––or wants to change the constitution to get another, much longer lease on power.

Last Saturday, the veil dropped. Well, at least a little. In a speech on national TV, President Kabila announced the holding of a national dialogue to deal with elections. Specifically, he said that difficult questions needed to be discussed. I paraphrase:

  • How do we finance elections if we only have 40% of the $1,2 billion we think we need?
  • What should the role of foreign donors be and how to we balance the need for their support and national sovereignty?
  • How should we prevent the kind of violence we saw during past elections?
  • We need to update the voter register, but that will take time––should we do this quickly or take our time at the risk of delaying elections?
  • Given that we are already behind schedule. how should we change the electoral calendar?

Very good questions. Except for two major problems. First, he said that in order to reduce the cost of elections, “can’t we begin to think about an electoral system with a less costly form of voting, as in other countries?” This immediately triggered controversy, leading one opposition grouping (la Dynamique de l’opposition together with the G7) to accuse Kabila of high treason. Despite the hyperbole, it is indeed easy to think the president was suggesting they change the constitution to allow the president to be indirectly elected by parliament, as is done in Angola and South Africa, something that presidential advisors have been talking about for several years. This could allow Kabila to argue that he could stand for another two terms under this new electoral system. Indeed, as the UDPS opposition party pointed out, “the president talked about everything except himself”––it would have been easy for him to dispel allegations that he wants to stay on as president, but he has always refused to do so.

Secondly, the shape of the dialogue is controversial. The UDPS complained that the president’s statement watered down the role of an international facilitator, which has been one of their key demands. Kabila said the dialogue will be co-managed by the ruling coalition and the opposition, with an international facilitator stepping in only “in the case of major difficulties.” Nonetheless, Saïd Djinnit, the UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region arrived in Kinshasa yesterday to “discuss the contours of a political dialogue.” According to UN sources, both the government and the UN agree that Djinnit could be the facilitator, although the latter still has to see whether the UN can endorse the dialogue in the proposed form.

Indeed, it isn’t clear who would be sitting across the table from President Kabila. Many think the UDPS, which held a secretive “pre-dialogue” with the ruling party in Venice and Ibiza this year, is going to participate. Their reaction to Kabila’s speech, while critical, still makes it seem like they are going to participate––they want the facilitator to set up the preparatory committee, and they want clear guidelines stating that the constitution will not be changed and that elections will be held by the end of 2016.

But the UDPS would lack broader legitimacy if they cannot rope in other opposition parties. A leader of one of those parties told me in private, that “we will have to take to the streets before we can negotiate with Kabila.” This even appears to be the logic of the powerful Catholic church, which supports a dialogue, but seems skeptical that this one will be constructive. In a statement published last week, the church announced prayers and marches to defend the country’s democracy. The church will be a critical broker of popular opinion in the days and weeks ahead, as we find out whether negotiations or popular protests will decide the fate of the country’s fledgling democracy.

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