Controversy in Kinshasa as Kabila Tries to Change the Constitution

Talk of changing the constitution and electoral law in the Congo is now mounting, with the national assembly debating the issue and parties tallying their members’ votes to see whether they can win the vote. Yesterday, Congo’s Catholic Cardinal Monsengwo came out in opposition to one of the more controversial reforms, which would make the presidential race into a single-round plurality vote. But it looks like President Kabila might have the votes to push through the reform anyway.
What is at stake exactly? President Kabila has long said that he wanted to change the way representatives are elected. In particular, he and his associates have complained that it is difficult to push through the necessary reforms with 70 different  political parties in the national assembly alone, which has resulted in endless horse-trading and bribery. The ruling AMP coalition therefore has proposed to changing the electoral law to what they are calling a majoritarian system – this means that MPs will be elected based on lists determined by their political party and not as individuals.
Let’s take an example – the Lukunga electoral district of Kinshasa currently has 14 seats in the national assembly. In 2006, voters elected their MPs individually, with several parties obtaining seats in Lukunga. If the proposed change goes through, the district would still have 14 votes, but voters would elect the MLC or PPRD or ARC list instead of individuals. If the MLC wins 50% of the vote, then they get all 14 seats. If they have less than that, under the proposed law, they would split the seats proportionally – they might get 4, PPRD 4 and ARC 6, for example.
This proposal might not get through, as many current MPs, who would have to vote on these changes, fear that this list-based system would give too much power to the party leadership. Especially the smaller parties could suffer, as the PPRD is aiming at using its muscle and cash to dominate the upcoming elections, thereby eliminating many of the smaller parties that would only get through if they made an official alliance with another party (in which case they would have to cede some of their power and autonomy) or if no one in the district got the necessary 50% of the vote.
This, however, is not the controversial reform. President Kabila has made waves by asking for the presidential election to be held as a one-round, plurality vote. This means that the candidate with the most votes in the first round gets elected, even if he only has 15% of the vote. This is what Cardinal Monsengwo has denounced a undemocratic. It is a smart move – Kabila would probably lose a fair two-round election in which his opponents would form an alliance and present one candidate in the run-off. This happened in the Ivory Coast, for example, an election that has struck fear in the heart of the ruling Congolese coalition. It would also save the government a lot of money, which has been their main selling point – they argue that up to half of the costs could be saved.
In a one-round election, however, Kabila’s opponents would split the anti-Kabila vote among themselves and the incumbent could still muddle his way to victory, as he knows that it is unlikely that Kamerhe and Tshisekedi, the strongest candidates for the opposition at the moment, would run on a joint ticket in the first round. If Congolese elections were issue-based elections, this system may not be so bad. But in the Congo, the vote is often based on approval or rejection of the incumbent alone – in this context, the proposed system would favor the incumbent Kabila, as the main policy issue in the election is whether you approve of the incumbent or not, and the anti-incumbent vote would be split in two, giving Kabila a much better chance at winning. This means that 60% of the population could vote against Kabila (30% Kamerhe, 30% Tshisekedi), but he would still win. Even worse, Kamerhe could win 20% in the Kivus, Tshisekedi 20% in the Kasais and Kinshasa, a gaggle of other candidates 30% in the rest of the country and Kabila could get elected with 21%, purely Katangan votes.
These changes would not be unconstitutional – although some might argue that they go against the spirit of the constitution. Congo’s constitution is relatively easy to amend – you only need 60% of the votes in parliament, and the AMP thinks it can rally these easily. Also, other countries in the world have a similar system, in particular countries in Latin America – Mexico, Nicaragua (although I believe you need at least 35% of the vote there), Paraguay – but also the Philippines and Seychelles. So the revision of the constitution and electoral law would be legal, but it could very well end up producing an unrepresentative vote.