Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila has committed to hold elections on December 23.
Although the opposition, the Catholic Church and donors have been pushing the Congolese leader to leave power after staying on for two years contrary to the Constitution, they are still unconvinced that he will go easily.
A new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) says that when the country’s electoral body in November 2017 unveiled the calendar for elections, it caught diplomats, opposition politicians and civil society off-guard, and now they fear that the polls, if held as scheduled, may not be credible.
“While all had been lobbying for elections, few expected the Congolese government to set serious preparations in motion. Thus far, the move toward elections appears positive, but it raises new risks, related to the unfair conditions for the vote, and potential struggles among Kabila’s allies over who assumes his mantle,” said the report released on April 4.
President Kabila’s constitutional mandate ended in December 2016, but the elections had been delayed by his previous attempts to stay on, citing lack of funds.
Now, the Independent National Electoral Commission (Ceni) has unveiled new electoral regulations, completed voter registration, in which 46 million new voters have been listed, and introduced new voting technology, ostensibly to eliminate electoral fraud.
But the ICG says that the technical progress toward elections confronts foreign powers with hard choices: If they back elections they risk supporting a mediocre process, while a refusal to engage would risk further delays, for which they might shoulder the blame.
“Likewise, if they try to leverage their support for the electoral process, the regime could revert to its previous delaying tactics,” the report says.
“Having weakened the opposition, the regime is calling everyone’s bluff.”
The opposition has been thrown into a spin, with several parties struggling to form alliances that could help them meet the threshold set by the new electoral laws, giving conditions that the Kabila government is likely to ignore.
Dr David Mialano Tangania, chairman of the National Alliance for Peace and Democracy party, told The EastAfrican the alliance comprising 17 opposition parties wants the elections to be held, but not with President Kabila at the helm.
They are demanding a caretaker government to be led by Laurent Cardinal Monsengwo, Catholic Archbishop of Kinshasa.
“Kabila ceased to be president in December 2016, as per the Constitution, and cannot be expected to preside over credible elections, having disrespected the country’s laws,” said Dr Tangania.
The alliance led by exiled opposition leader Moïse Katumbi, is also demanding the replacement of Ceni president Corneille Nangaa and is opposed to the use of electronic voting machines, which they say could be used to manipulate the results.
The new electoral laws, which President Kabila signed last December, set the minimum votes political parties must garner to qualify for seats in the national and provincial legislatures and raise the non-refundable fee for presidential candidates from $54,000 to $100,000.
There are more than 700 political parties in DRC, and only 23 of the 148 parties currently represent in parliament are likely to qualify.
The ICG says that the lack of clarity in the budget, the lack of a level playing field, and the introduction of new voting machines are some of the challenges that must be overcome within the remaining eight months to ensure free elections.
The elections will cost $432 million, with the biggest chunk, $157.7 million, planned for purchase of the 105,149 voting machines, supplied by a South Korea firm, Miru Systems Ltd.
Despite President Kabila’s declaration that the government will finance the entire process, there are concerns among Western donors about Kinshasa’s ability to do so.
Among the opposition leaders preparing to contest is Mr Katumbi, who is exiled in Belgium but is also embroiled in controversy for also having Italian citizenship.
Others are veteran politician Vital Kamerhe of Union for the Congolese Nation, Felix Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, and Eve Bazaiba of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo.
President Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Development is yet to declare its candidate. The Constitution guarantees President Kabila — who came to power in 2001— a seat in the Senate, but experts say he is keen to influence his succession to protect himself and family.