Congolese opposition leaders reject proposed electoral law change

Thursday January 6 2011

Former Congolese National Assembly Speaker Lambert Mende. Photo/JUAKALI KAMBALE

Former Congolese National Assembly Speaker Vital Kamerhe. Photo/JUAKALI KAMBALE 

By JUAKALI KAMBALE in Kinshasa

Is it a joke or a political strategy intended to test the waters as a new electoral cycle unfolds in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)? People are wondering what exactly President Joseph Kabila’s government and his Alliance of the Presidential Majority (AMP) are up to.

The subject is a seemingly provocative announcement made on January 4, 2011 by Mr Lambert Mende, the spokesman of both the government and the AMP, proposing the cancellation of the second round of the coming presidential election ostensibly because it will strain the national budget.

“We all recall how costly the second round of the polls was during the 2006 presidential election. The government finds it wiser to officially adopt a one-round ballot,” he explained to reporters.

According to Mr Mende, who is also the minister in charge of Communication and Media, the total cost of the 2006 election was $700 million while the first round alone cost $350 million. The first round also involves legislative elections.

It is expected the proposal will be submitted for debate in the Parliament which is currently sitting in extraordinary session.

Prominent figures

Predictably, the proposal has provoked violent reactions from opposition political leaders who accuse the government and the AMP of a deliberate plot to cheat.

At the forefront of the opposition are two prominent Congolese figures – former Speaker of the National Assembly Vital Kamerhe and veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS).

Mr Kamerhe was pushed out of the Speaker’s job after criticising President Kabila’s decision to allow a joint military operation in 2009 between DRC and Rwandan troops targeting Rwandan Hutu militias living in North and South Kivu provinces.

Last month, the former Speaker formed a new party called the Congolese National Union (UNC) and has officially announced his candidacy for the presidential election.

Mr Tshisekedi reads the proposal as a device to ensure that the contestants against President Kabila are knocked out early and their vote scattered. “This is not an event, it is a distraction,” grumbled the old leader in his New Year speech to Congolese people.

Mr Tshisekedi, who rose to fame years ago through his opposition to the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, has also announced he will be vying for the presidency.

'Risk of disorder'

Within the AMP, the issue is not so much the one-round proposal as it is a sense of embarrassment that Minister Mende jumped the gun.

Mr Louis Koyagialo, the acting Executive Secretary of AMP, told reporters that much as the alliance recognised the minister as their spokesman, the issue of amending the electoral law had not yet debated by members.

“We do recognize that Hon Mende belongs to the AMP political bureau as our spokesman but I insist that currently we are just planning to discuss the amendment proposal and will let you know the official statement of the alliance,” Mr Koyagialo told a private radio in Kinshasa.

Also barrelling in into the controversy is the Catholic Church, which has warned of the “risk of disorder” if the electoral law is manipulated. Kinshasa’s Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, apart from terming the proposed amendment “dangerous,” has raised two specific arguments against it.

One, according to him, is that a president elected on the first-round is unlikely to garner a majority or even plurality of the vote across the country. Two, and based on previous elections, the first-round vote is basically an ethnic one.

“I call upon the wisdom of the political leaders to avoid endorsing such a change because it would increase both tribalism and communitarianism. The Congolese people should reject such a proposal,” the prelate warned at a press conference.