Elections: Can the opposition still unite?

Correction: There are only 11 presidential candidates. Ismael Kitenge did not register.

As most readers will know by now, there are twelve candidates for the presidential elections in the Congo. This is many fewer than in 2006, when 33 Congolese vied for the position, but for many in the opposition, this is still far too many.

As I have argued here before, the presidential vote will, first and foremost, be a referendum on Kabila’s popularity. If the president, for example, knows that he can garner 35% of the popular vote, then he needs to focus on making sure the remaining 65% is divided among enough candidates that no single one can beat him. That was the importance of the constitutional revision earlier this year, that changed the presidential poll from a two-round, majority-wins election to a one-round, plurality-wins affair.

This means that the main challenge for the opposition will be to unite behind a single candidate in order to increase their chances of beating Kabila. This endeavor, however, has butted up against the considerable egos of those involved, as well as deep mistrust within the opposition.

The opposition has now split into two major wings – the Fatima wing, led by Tshisekedi. He has been able to muster the support of 80 political parties other than his own UDPS, although none of these parties, to my knowledge, has much of an electoral base. Talks appear to have more or less come to an end between Tshisekedi and the other major opposition candidates. “The negotiations are finished,” the veteran opposition leader said when he submitted his candidacy. His spokesperson added: “I am sure that our friends will join us.”

Those friends, however, have formed their own wing, an informal coalition dubbed Sultani, and led by Léon Kengo wa Dondo and Vital Kamerhe. In private, members of those parties are not optimistic about uniting behind Tshisekedi, who they claim has been leading with his chin by boldly refusing any negotiations. And even within this coalition, there are troubles – Kengo has been telling his colleagues that Kamerhe may rally behind him in exchange for the prime minister’s position. Kamerhe says this is not true, and indeed it is not clear why Kengo, who has been a sly political player but has little mass following, should take the lead.

Other, smaller players, may yet further divide the opposition. Adam Bombole, a rich businessman and former head of the MLC’s Kinshasa section, has thrown his name in the hat. According to MLC sources, Bombole spoke with Jean-Pierre Bemba and received his provisional approval to run, but then didn’t take the care to consult with other MLC leaders (not in prison) before announcing his candidacy. The result: He has been expelled from the party. Nonetheless, Bombole has relatively deep pockets and is popular in Kinshasa, where he could get votes.

The only other two of the twelve candidates who could get more than one or two percent of the vote are Mbusa Nyamwisi and Oscar Kashala. Mbusa, who decided to run as an independent instead of for his RCD-K-ML party, still has something of a base in North Kivu among his Nande community, although many have jumped ship there, as well. Kashala came in 5th in the 2006 elections, with 3,4% of the total vote. However, the US-based doctor benefited then from Tshisekedi’s boycott, allowing him to claim many votes in the Luba community and in Kinshasa.

With this proliferation of candidates, it is no surprise that allegations have emerged that some are fake opposition members, running in order to divide their ranks and allow Kabila to win. Kamerhe and Kengo have been accused of this, and now Bombole and Mbusa have earned this dubious distinction, as well. I even heard a Kengo supporter suggesting that Tshisekedi’s advisors have been bought off and have steered him in the wrong direction.

Of course, it is still theoretically possible that (a) the opposition will unite, at least a little; and (b) that even divided, one of them could beat Kabila single-handedly. The president, however, has formidable resources: deep pockets, state media and the security services. Already, opposition members are complaining that they barely had the funds to pay for the registration of all of their legislative candidates, and there are reports that some of the main opposition parties have only been able to field candidates in a fraction of the 169 electoral districts.

The next weeks will be interesting. Two things to watch: Will there be any further consolidation of the presidential field? My guess is that this would happen before the official campaigning begins in October, when candidates start spending much more money. Secondly, who are the different parties’ legislative candidates? This last question will be important for any negotiations within the opposition, as it will have a bearing on who is projected to control parliament and thus be able to nominate the prime minister.