The Democratic Republic of the Congo is in the midst of the wildest election of 2016. It has already made news for its massive urban protests and assassination attempts—and for Moïse Katumbi, the charismatic opposition leader who had to flee the country in May and hasn’t been back since. Elections are supposed to take place on December 19 of this year, and the president is supposed to call for the elections 90 days in advance—that is, September 19, today. But in Congo, elections seldom go as they are supposed to.
Last week, term-limited incumbent president Joseph Kabila unveiled a plan for a transitional government of national unity to last until elections can be organized—a plan that would allow him to remain president indefinitely. Congo’s normally fractious opposition parties have been uniting this election, and while they’re out of power right now, they aren’t stupid. Bloomberg reports:
The Democratic Republic of Congo’s largest opposition parties rejected a plan for President Joseph Kabila to rule as head of a reorganized government until delayed elections can be held and insisted the head of state must step down when his term ends in December.
“It is unacceptable,” said Union for Democracy and Social Progress spokesman Felix Tshisekedi, whose father finished runner-up to Kabila in a disputed vote in 2011. “For us the red line is December 19 and Kabila must leave office,” he said by phone from the capital, Kinshasa.
Congo, Africa’s biggest copper producer, has never had a peaceful transfer of leadership. Kabila, in power since 2001, won elections in 2006 and 2011 but is prevented from running for a third term by the constitution. Opposition parties are preparing a series of protests beginning on Sept. 19 when, according to the constitution, Kabila should call the presidential election — 90 days before his term ends.
Today marks an inflection point in the campaign. In failing to call elections for December 19, Kabila, who is already unpopular, loses whatever scraps of legitimacy he has left. The country’s politics will only grow more violent and less predictable from here. The opposition parties will launch protests in Congo’s largest cities—Kinshasa, the capital in the West, and Lubumbashi, Katumbi’s stronghold in the Southeast—and business could even grind to a halt. A government crackdown could drive elements in the opposition to arm themselves, triggering another civil war in a country still recovering from the last one.
The DRC is a massive country facing even more massive challenges: porous borders, largely imaginary sovereignty within those borders, roving militias in the ungoverned East, and a commodity-dependent economy that leaves government revenue subject to price swings. It would do well to avoid adding civil war to that list. If only some clever diplomats could entice Kabila to step down, promising a sweet immunity deal and a nice villa on the French Riviera…