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A sudden senate reversal puts Congo electoral calendar in jeopardy

But the real controversy is not that. The forcing through of the law shows the Congolese government’s determination to hold local elections, currently scheduled for 25 October 2015, before the presidential and national parliamentary elections. This will almost inevitably delay the electoral process, as the local elections are more complicated than any other before, and the logistics and finances are simply not in place. As a result, President Kabila will remain as president past his constitutional limit of December 2016, potentially triggering a political crisis.On August 11 the Congolese senate passed a law apportioning seats for the upcoming local elections. It was a technical law, ascribing seats for local councils (conseil municipaux, conseil de communes, conseil de chefferie/secteur) based on the population. There were a bunch of important, technical controversies linked to the lack of reliable demographic data. In addition, the opposition protested that the senate could not hold two extraordinary sessions on the same issue––the same law had been rejected two weeks earlier due to a lack of quorum.

Although this calendar has been in place since February 2015, things could have turned out differently. For the past several months, Kabila has been holding discussions with a wide variety of actors––opposition parties, religious and customary leaders, and members of his own ruling majority. These discussions, which have flagged off over the past month, were supposed to prepare the ground for a national dialogue. Time and again, the president’s interlocutors said that the result of that dialogue should be the postponing of local elections until 2017, so that the president and national assembly can be elected on time. That was the message given by the Catholic Church, a variety of opposition parties, and even a dissident wing––the so-called Group of 7 (here and here)––of his presidential majority.

But the senate vote makes it fairly clear that the president has chosen otherwise. The first time the law came up for a vote in the senate––it had been passed by the national assembly––the chamber failed to muster a quorum, with only 47 of the 108 senators supporting the bill and only 49 voting. Only XXX later, the exact same bill was put forward and there was a unanimous vote: all 77 senators present voted in favor.

It is reasonable to assume that the difference between first and the second vote––between 49 and 77 senators––was the result of extensive pressure and possibly vote-buying, and that is what some senators are now reporting in private. Even members of the dissident G7 faction are rumored to have voted in favor of the law. It is unlikely that the presidency would have deployed such efforts if it had not decided to double down on local elections.

And yet, there has been little reaction from the usual quarters. As mentioned, opposition leaders voiced procedural complaints, saying that it is unconstitutional to convoke two extraordinary sessions on the same issue. Others have called for international mediation of a national dialogue. But there have been no street protests and little explicit international condemnation. Compare that with January, when another delaying tactic was put before parliament: the holding of a national census before the presidential elections. That law was amended following bloody street protests and the mobilization of members of the ruling coalition and opposition against the bill. This time there is little sign of that sort of protest.

One difference has been the attitude of senate president Kengo wa Dondo, who played a key role in January but this time was in favor of the law. The international community has also been relatively quiet recently, due to the absence of a US Special Envoy for several months and the attention of many countries on the crisis in Burundi.

Of course, it is not too late for local elections to be postponed. And even if they are maintained––and even if the creation of new provinces goes forward as planned––President Kabila may only gain an additional year or two in power. But at the moment, it does not seem that anyone is operating based on a longer time frame than that. Checkers, not chess.