So, who will be running against Joseph Kabila in the presidential election? There are so far 11 registered candidates, several of whom represent strong competition for Kabila in the election. I have chosen to highlight three particular Congolese political figures, of which 2 are registered as presidential candidates. There are many, many more notable Congolese opposition leaders, but I am limiting myself just to demonstrate the fragmented nature of the opposition, as well as for the sake of brevity.
Etienne Tshisekedi, nicknamed the “Sphinx of Limete”, is an old and experienced player in the Congolese political arena, having cut his teeth as one of Mobutu’s foes. Tshisekedi’s party is the UDPS. Among the opposition, Tshisekedi is noteworthy for his adamant position that he is the only opposition candidate who can face Kabila. While other opposition candidates have called for inter-party negotiations in order to rally support around a single candidate, Tshisekedi has made it clear that he will compromise with no one. He has persistently called on other opposition leaders to fall behind him and support his candidacy, going so far as to visit Jean-Pierre Bemba in prison in the Hague to try and gain his (and hopefully the MLC’s) approval. So far, Tshisekedi has garnered a large coalition of politicians to support him, although this has been tempered by the fact that no one in his coalition is relevant or influential. Here in Sud Kivu, many view Tshisekedi as “too old” (he is 79) and not representing the interests of the East (he is from Kasai Province, and his base is largely in the West).
So far, there has been quite a bit of friction between UDPS supporters and the PPRD/Congolese state, punctuated by violent confrontations in Kinshasa on September 5-6 between UDPS supporters and PPRD supporters/state security forces.
Vital Kamerhe is an MP from Bukavu, and a former Speaker in the National Assembly. His party is the UNC. In 2009, Kamerhe was forced from his Speaker position due to his criticism of Kabila’s decision to conduct joint military operations with the Rwandan army in the Kivus. He remains critical of Kabila’s government, although some see Kamerhe as merely an overambitious politician who challenges Kabila purely for his own political gain. Kamerhe, as a native of Sud Kivu, retains a certain level of popularity here, though he still lacks enough political influence outside of the East. Kamerhe has built some crucial alliances with other Congolese political parties, notably with fellow presidential candidate and President of the Senate Leon Kengo wa Dongo, although there are still major leadership issues within these alliances.
In 2006, Joseph Kabila faced Jean-Pierre Bemba in the 2nd round of the presidential election. Bemba is the leader of the MLC, a rebel movement during the 2nd Congo War that morphed into a national political party once peace was declared in 2003. Bemba is almost universally despised here in the East due to his alliances with the Ugandan military and the horrendous human rights abuses committed by MLC troops in the East, including allegations of cannibalism. Today, Bemba is in prison in the Hague pending trial for war crimes at the ICC. Nonetheless, he is still considered the exiled “leader” of the MLC. The MLC has not fielded a presidential candidate for the 2011 election, despite the fact that Bemba made statements that he would run for president from his jail cell in the Netherlands. Bemba’s continuing (though declining) relevance and his persistence are good examples of the strange and surreal nature of Congolese politics.
Overall, the picture that one finds of the opposition is of a squabbling and unorganized group, divided by ethnicity, region, and individual ambition. As the presidential election will be a 1-round, plurality-wins affair this time, it is crucial that the opposition can unite around a common leader if they realistically want a chance to beat Kabila. A major point of compromise will be the promise of positions in the new government depending on support of a common candidate, as well as input in the policy-making process. However, so far there are few signs of unity, despite the fact that the election date is getting closer and closer. There are also concerns that Kabila is using “dummy candidates” to take away votes from opposition candidates, although it is also common for opposition leaders to accuse each other of being “dummy candidates” that have been “bought off” by Kabila.
Some in the opposition, like Tshisekedi, have unequivocally stated that whoever the opposition is, Kabila will lose. On the other hand, Kabila has stated that he is supremely confident of victory in November. So, no one is really willing to give up, and, although the cards are stacked in Kabila’s favor, anything is possible come November 28th.
How are sentiments on the ground here in Uvira? A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a group of young Uvirois at a popcorn stand, and the conversation drifted into politics.
“We have had enough with Kabila, there are no jobs and no security,” said the young Congolese. I asked them whom they were voting for.
“Vital Kamerhe,” they responded unanimously. I asked them why they thought things would be different if Kamerhe was elected.
“We don’t know if things will be better, but Kabila had his chance, it’s time to give someone else a chance, and Tshisekedi is too old.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Again, this is only the 3rd multiparty presidential election in the Congo’s history. How is this time different from 2006? There are a few notable changes to the political situation, as well as some changes to the election system itself. In my next blog entry, we will take a look at some crucial aspects of the 2011 election process, including changes to the constitution and the decrease of international involvement.
Posted By WALTER JAMES
Posted Oct 31st, 2011