Opposition parties in the Democratic Republic of Congo are working on a formula to back a single candidate to face off with the government’s candidate in the December 23 elections.
The leaders started discussions in Switzerland on November 7 to forge a united front, promising to come up with a single candidate by November 15.
Exiled opposition leader Moise Katumbi of the Together for Change party, Jean Pierre Bemba of the Movement de Liberation du Congo (MLC) and Vital Kamerhe of Union for the Congolese Nation (UCN) are leading the search of a single opposition candidate.
However, Felix Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) — who opinion polls show is the most preferred candidate — is reluctant to join the talks for a single opposition candidate and would prefer to go it alone, banking on the traditional support his father, Etienne Tshisekedi, enjoyed before he died in February last year.
The opposition are worried that government candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who is running under the newly formed coalition known as the Common Front for Congo (FCC) — is likely to win because of a partisan electoral body, new voting technology that can be manipulated and the deployment of government machinery led by the military.
There is also concern within the opposition that some Western countries are not concerned about a shoddy elections so long as President Joseph Kabila is out of the way.
Stephanie Wolters, the head of the Division for Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis at the South African-based Institute for Security Studies, says that there are divisions within the opposition and it unlikely that Mr Katumbi and Mr Memba will support Mr Tshisekedi.
“The situation is still unclear but if the opposition unites, it is unlikely that the government candidate can win in a free and fair election,” said Ms Wolters.
A similar meeting held in October in South Africa failed to produce a single candidate. However, sources say that the opposition could settle on Mr Kamerhe, who came third in the 2011 elections.
The latest opinion polls by the Bureau of Studies, Research, and International Consulting based in Kinshasa, put Mr Tshisekedi in the lead with 36 per cent, Mr Kamerhe at 17 per cent and Mr Shadary at 16 per cent.
However, the opposition are facing an already uneven playing field where not all eligible voters have been registered.
Sisco Mayala, a freelance journalist based in Kinshasa said that the election has been virtually won by the government’s candidate. He says that the military is already involved in the elections by provided logistics such as planes, trucks and helicopters to the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI).
Second, Mr Mayala said, the campaign team of Mr Shadary involves key ministers in the government, an indication that President Kabila is determined to ensure that his candidate wins. Government officials campaigning for Mr Shadary are Prime Minister Bruno Tshibala, Minister for Interior Henri Mova Sakani and Minister for Defence Atama Tabe.
“One wonders how these key government officials can be part of the FCC candidate's campaign team. Will they be neutral at the time of the campaign as the government officers working for every Congolese?” He said.
The Study Group on Congo, a lobby based at New York University, released a report at the end of October raising concerns that President Kabila’s control of CENI and the Constitutional Court is likely to compromise the credibility of the elections.
"These accusations, together with the lack of consensus in the political class and the popular protests that may ensue, risk plunging the DRC into a new cycle of conflict," says the report.
Ms Wolters said that there is already evidence that elections will not be credible because of lack of a level playing field, the exclusion of Mr Katumbi and Mr Bemba, and the government insisting on introducing new technology to voters who are not in the biometric data base.
“If the Congolese government wants to hold credible elections, it should have engaged in confidence building measures to win over the confidence of the people. The 10 million voting machines should not have been ordered,” said Ms Wolters.
“Why would a government that has delayed elections for two years not be willing to build confidence among the voters. It is unlikely that the elections will be credible because it is already undermined by the issues that the opposition is raising,” she added.
In the meantime, the European Union is set to renew sanctions in December against Mr Shadary and senior government officials. The EU last year imposed the sanctions on Mr Shadary, who served as interior minister and 15 other government officials, after a crackdown on protesters who opposed to the delay in holding elections, during which hundreds were killed.