Congo-Kinshasa: DRC Election Campaigns Kick Off but Who Will Take the Lead?

Radio Okapi/Ph. John Bompengo
Registration campaign in DRC
22 November 2018

Campaigns have kicked off in the Democratic Republic of Congo ahead of the long awaited election on December 23. President Kabila has chosen a successor and parts of the opposition have united behind a common candidate.

Crowds of people greeted opposition candidate Martin Fayulu as he landed in Kinshasa on Wednesday, November 22, ahead of the official start of the campaigning period. Fayulu, it was decided in early November would the opposition's common candidate - at least in part. Two major opposition candidates, Vital Kamerhe and Felix Tshisekedi have refused to put their weight behind him.

Elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been a long time in coming. After a two-year delay, President Joseph Kabila finally bowed to political pressure and chose his successor in the ruling party candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

While not all the demands of the opposition and civil society groups, such as the release of political prisoners, the skepticism over the newly introduced voting machines and the registration of all presidential candidates, have been met, the election is now set for December 23. All in all 21 presidential candidates are running for the top post.

Martin Fayulu - the new face of the opposition?

The opposition's decision to field a common candidate comes more out of necessity rather than unity. Two heavy weights, Jean-Pierre Bembaand Moise Katumbiwere both excluded from the race, after attempting to put forward their candidacies. The two are now amongst the six opposition leaders backing Fayulu.

"The people want change. The people want to leave the 20 years of Kabila (both father and son) behind them - the misery, the killings, the insecurity. Our aim is to have credible, transparent and peaceful elections," Fayulu declared. Speaking to DW, he urged Felix Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe, who had retracted their support for him to reconsider their decisions.

Like the ruling party candidate Shadary, Fayulu is not considered to be one of the main political figures in Congolese politics. Speaking to DW, Fayulu, however, denied being an outsider. "I've been in all the struggles of the opposition. I fought on the side of [Etienne] Tshisekedi. I led the protests and marches. There is no one among the 21 opposition candidates who has been as involved in politics as I have. The Congolese people call me a 'soldier of the people'," Fayulu told DW.

While Fayulu might have not been the most popular candidate to start off with, analysts believe that support from Bemba and Katumbi will give him a certain boost.

"Nobody can win on their own," argues political analyst Didier Nkingu. "Not even [Felix Tshisekedi's] UDPS can win on its own. Unfortunately, I think that will work in the favor of the current regime."

Most people, says Nkingu, will vote along ethnic or regional lines. "Somebody from central DRC will feel closer to Fayulu," explains Nkingu. With the help of Katumbi and Bemba, he might even win more support in the North and South-East.

Tshisekedi and his UDPS party will most likely get the most support in his stronghold in Kasai, but thanks to the popularity of Tshisekedi's recently deceased father Etienne, the party also commands a good deal of support in other regions.

Missing political agenda

One point that many observers are missing until now is a concrete agenda.

Ruling party candidate Shadary, has spoken of strengthening governmental authority throughout the country, diversifying the economy and valuing the 'Congolese man'. "When it comes to Emmanuel Shadary," says Marcel Ngoy, a Congolese political analyst, "the problem his agenda doesn't represent his views. The ideas come from a small group of politicians who want the continuity of the work done by President Kabila."

While the ruling party wants continuity, the opposition is campaigning for change. The question is, just how they plan to bring about this change. "They use terms like 'eliminating poverty' but they don't say how they plan to bring the people out of poverty," says Jean Paul Kuyamba, an activist with the Lucha youth movement. According to him, this goes all major opposition candidates.

Election preparedness

While the country has been preparing for the election since 2016, the trust in the electoral body CENI has been a major matter of concern. Government critics are still skeptical about the conduct and credibility of the elections. One of the main demands by civil society groups was to go back to a manual voting system as they feared that the new voting machines could be manipulated. The organization Human Rights Watch also criticized the DRC government for "arresting and mistreating activists, journalists, and other dissidents," in the run-up to the polls.

Both the US and the UN Security Council welcomed the progress made by the government toward organizing the election. "The DRC has a historic opportunity to carry out a credible election leading to a peaceful, democratic transfer of power," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

The UN Security Council additionally praised DRC for inviting the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) election observation missions but urged the government to invite more other organizations, such as the EU, which have so far been excluded from the process.

The start of political campaigning was marred by violence in the region of Kasai where three ruling party supporters were decapitated. The regions of Kasai and the eastern DRC are still volatile due to the presence of armed militants. Additionally, the North Kivu region in eastern DRC has been plagued by an Ebola outbreak which has so far left more than 200 people dead.

Wendy Bashi, Saleh Mwanamilongo and Etienne Gatanazi contributed to this report

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