In DRC Election, a Political System Defends Itself

Outgoing president Joseph Kabila has been revealed not as a strongman, but as a liability that needed to be removed.

Expert comment Updated 10 February 2020 Published 14 January 2019 3 minute READ
Joseph Kabila arrives at a polling station on election day, 30 December. Photo: Getty Images.

Joseph Kabila arrives at a polling station on election day, 30 December. Photo: Getty Images.

The announcement of Felix Tshisekedi as the winner of the presidential election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo came as a shock. Many expected the outgoing administration of President Joseph Kabila to install its chosen candidate, Emmanuel Shadary; there is now the fear that Kabila will continue to rule from behind the scenes.

But Kabila was never the African ‘strongman’ of cliché, and Tshisekedi’s putative victory reveals much about a deep-rooted political system and its ability to adapt.

Tshisekedi’s triumph is one of political engineering rather than the ballot box. Accurate polling is extremely difficult in a country like the DRC, where there has been no census since the 1980s, but there is no reason to doubt pre-election polls that showed a different opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, in a commanding lead, nor the claims by the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo (CENCO) that data from their 40,000 observers does not match the results as announced.

Fayulu and his supporters allege that a power-sharing deal has been struck. Alternatively, it is possible that Tshisekedi was simply the least-worst option for the powers-that-be given Shadary’s manifest unpopularity.

In either case, Fayulu and many in civil society fear that Tshisekedi may be little more than camouflage for continued domination by Kabila. The announcement that the Common Front for Congo (FCC) – a Kabila-aligned coalition of many political groupings and parties – has won an absolute majority in the National Assembly, obliging the incoming president to accommodate them in forming a government, lends further fuel to this fire.

Will it stick?

Fayulu has formally challenged the results in the Constitutional Court, widely perceived to be politically inclined to Kabila. If the legal challenge fails, it is not clear whether Fayulu has enough popular support to press his case via the street.

Prior to his November 2018 nomination as the consensus opposition candidate he was a relatively peripheral figure. The Congolese electorate is sophisticated and perfectly capable of large-scale tactical voting, and Fayulu’s appeal as the most plausible anti-Kabila candidate falls away in the event of a Tshisekedi victory, however suspect. There have thus far been no large-scale public demonstrations.

CENCO has a national reach and real moral authority, and might able to inspire significant opposition to the announced result. The have made it clear – albeit not yet explicit – that they believe that Martin Fayulu was the winner of the poll, but will no doubt be balancing their desire for democracy with the imperative of avoiding violence. They have a fine line to walk.

The international community has expressed its disquiet with the provisional results, but lacks meaningful leverage and is likely to follow the lead of regional kingmakers, represented by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Their priority for the DRC has long been assumed to be stability above all else. SADC has recommended both a recount and a power-sharing accommodation, citing the precedents of Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

This may lend hope to Fayulu’s challenge, though it is possible that he too will come under significant pressure to climb down and accept compromise. The Constitutional Court ruling, due within a week, will be the next flashpoint to watch.

Puppet or president?

It is certain that Kabila and his networks will remain a major force in the DRC’s politics. But even just a few months ago, many observers doubted that elections would happen at all. If they did, Kabila was widely expected to stand. The announcement that Shadary would represent the FCC at the election, made in August 2018, came as a shock to many. So too did the putative victory of Tshisekedi.

Fear that Kabila will somehow continue to dominate is understandable, given the cynicism engendered by his long years of misrule. But in focusing on one man, such a reading of the DRC risks misdiagnosing the underlying challenge – that of understanding and challenging the deep-rooted political system that has served the interests of the Congolese political class, writ large, for generations.

This system is pervasive – taking in most across the often-theatrical divide of ‘government’ and ‘opposition’ – and defends itself, capable of isolating any threat to its survival. Seen from a systemic perspective, rather than an incumbent strongman, Kabila had become the lightning rod for popular anger over the failure of Congo’s leaders to make a meaningful difference to the lives of the people. This anger had begun to threaten the overall stability of the DRC, and the interests and investments of the powerful from all political camps.

Seen in this light, Kabila had become a liability that needed to be removed. The question, therefore, was who would replace him.

Tshisekedi is not a political cipher. He represents one of the few political parties in the DRC – the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS) – which, though weakened by repeated splits, still has a national organization, reach and support. He also wears the mantle, perhaps uncomfortably, of his late father, Etienne Tshisekedi, an obdurate and long-standing fighter for democracy in the DRC. His running mate, Vital Kamerhe, is a long-term Kabila opponent, with significant political skills.

But Tshisekedi will be immediately confronted by the herculean task of stitching together the alliances that he will need to govern, and remain plagued by doubts over the legitimacy of his election. And at the same time, he will have to contend with unpicking the security apparatus around President Kabila, with the Republican Guard at the top of the list of challenges, and navigate the tangled networks and interests that sit underneath the DRC’s formal governance structures.

So, while fears that Tshisekedi will be controlled by Kabila are perhaps overplayed, he is also unlikely to be able to challenge a system that systematically siphons the DRC’s vast resources from its people to a privileged few. Thus, for now, the DRC’s political system seems likely to once again prove its adaptability, and to continue to run as it has for decades. An immediate change in governance patterns or circumstances for Congo’s people is an unrealistic outcome in the near term, however much it is needed.

The long term

But over the longer term, a less overweening presidency may open some opportunities for structural change. A weaker presidency, obliged to negotiate with regional elites and newly-elected provincial authorities, may result in more autonomy, more finance, and some space for more local initiatives to take root. Kinshasa’s byzantine politics has long been vanishingly remote from day-to-day reality for the vast majority of Congolese – a shift, however slight, towards the grassroots may make it possible to start to reboot the DRC’s long-dormant social contract.

It also brings risks. Though there may yet be significant unrest in relation to the presidential race, even a cosmetic change in the head of state may be enough to head off national mobilisation. But provincial politics may now matter more.

A 2015 redrawing of boundaries increased the number of the DRC’s provinces from 11 to 26, with untested political and ethnic balances. Though the provisional results for provincial assemblies have been overshadowed by presidential controversies, when the dust settles and it becomes clear which communities have emerged on top, there is the potential for tension and contestation to emerge nearly anywhere.

Added to the existing challenges of multiple armed groups in the east, large scale displacement and the ongoing Ebola crisis, and the new president – whoever it turns out to be – can expect a turbulent period in office.