|Clockwise, from upper left: the incumbent, the challenger, the wild card, and the old lion|
Despite his unimpressive record, most Congolese believe Kabila has a lock on the presidency, for three reasons: 1) He has the resources to give away those small gifts (such as t-shirts or pagnes) that, come election time, often sway poor and uninformed voters in Africa. 2) They think he'll manipulate the process, as he already has, for example, by rewriting the constitution so that the election is decided by a one-time, first-past-the-gate vote. 3) They believe that if all else fails Kabila will simply cheat, by rigging the electoral rolls, stuffing the ballot boxes, reporting false results, and so on. When Congolese talk about the likelihood of a Kabila reelection I sense more resignation than outrage; how much of that is African fatalism and how much simple realism only time will tell.
In this post, I review the main candidates' electoral prospects: Who are they, where do they get their support, and what are their platforms? Who would be likely to win, were there a free and fair election? In future posts, I'll review Kabila's record of governance and peer into my crystal ball to discuss potential scenarios: How likely are we to see the sort of post-electoral violence that erupted in Kenya and Cote d'Ivoire, for example? How might the West react if Kabila were to cheat his way to victory? How might the Congolese react?
Considered strictly as a candidate, Joseph Kabila is no Bill Clinton. He speaks French tentatively, like a second-rate student afraid he's about to be corrected, and of the four indigenous "national" languages of DRC, he only speaks Swahili. After ten years in the capital, he hasn't made any attempt to learn Lingala, the lingua franca of Kinshasa, the military, and the political class--let alone Tshiluba or KiKongo. He appears stiff on television and seems uncomfortable in crowds, although in private he's said to be more relaxed and personable. (His wife, by contrast, is much more at ease and telegenic; in her style and gait, she reminds me a little of Michelle Obama.) In 2006, Kabila garnered most of his support from the eastern half of the country, winning well over 90 percent of the vote in Katanga, Province Orientale, and the Kivus. He also won 25 to 40 percent of the vote in Kinshasa and the western provinces, enough to put him over the top. (The exception was Equateur, the home province of his principal opponent, Jean Pierre Bemba, where he lost by 97 to 3 percent.)
What's notable about these results is that Kabila won precisely in the areas where he was not, in fact, in charge. The country he inherited in 2001, when his father was assassinated, was divided raggedly in two. The eastern half was governed by puppet regimes established by Uganda and Rwanda. Even after the so-called "global and all-inclusive" peace agreement placed Kabila at the head of a nominally unified government in 2003, he had precious little administrative authority over the eastern half of the country. (As one diplomat put it, his hands were on the levers of power, but the levers weren't attached to the machine.)
In 2006, Kabila's support among eastern Congolese hinged on two factors: the first was the sense that he was "one of them"--i.e., a Swahili-speaking opponent of the hated Ugandan/Rwandan invaders; and the second was a hope that he could do a decent job of running the place if he were actually in charge. (Western Congolese, who had some experience of his rule, evidently didn't share those hopes.)
Five years on, support for Kabila in the east has shrunk dramatically. He set out his first term promising to make progress along five principal domains (or "chantiers" in French): Infrastructure, health and education, water and electricity, housing, and jobs. In the Kivus, at least, he's made no visible progress on any of them. The roads are disastrous; electricity and water intermittent; housing substandard; jobs rare. Indeed, it's hard to figure out what the government has done with its time and money over the last five years.
To be sure, the security situation is better than it was in 2006. Incorporating most of the militias into the national army reduced the total amount of violence. But the army failed to vet and train the militia. The result, now, is that on the occasions when they do rape and pillage, they do so wearing army uniforms. That's not good for Kabila's reputation. Even worse is the peace agreement Kabila signed with Rwanda in March 2009, allowing the Rwandan army into the Congo to hunt for the FDLR. This is widely viewed as a betrayal--and the numerous Rwandan troops that remain in eastern Congo serve as a daily reminder of Congo's weakness. For these reasons, I doubt Kabila will win more than 20 percent of the vote in the Kivus or Orientale.
Kabila's strongest support in 2011 may come from northern Katanga, where he enjoys two advantages. The first is that he's seen as a native son: his father hailed from the Luba, who predominate in that region. While Joseph grew up mostly in Tanzania and Uganda, he's surrounded himself with fellow Katangese. The second is that he's supported by the province's popular governor, Moise Katumbi, whose endorsement could count for a lot. Another province Kabila could win is Maniema, which he has turned into something of a testing ground for his infrastructure projects. This is good for Kabila's prospects, in the sense that he has poured a lot of money into the province, and bad, because few of the projects have come to fruition. Finally, Kabila may also pick up a plurality of votes in Kinshasa, thanks largely to the strong alliance he has developed over the past few years with Antoine Gizenga, the man who placed third in the 2006 election.
Etienne Tshisekedi, who for decades represented the principled opposition to Mobutu as head of the UDPS (Union for Democratic and Social Progress), was the man of the hour. Unfortunately, that hour was sometime back in the 1990s. At 78, he's simply too old to run a vigorous campaign, let alone govern the Congo for the next five years. Among Congolese there's a sense that Tshisekedi, famous for his prickly and stubborn temperament, simply failed to deliver--that he was outmaneuvered by Mobutu during the incessant negotiations that followed the Sovereign National Conference and that he then got caught flat-footed by Laurent Kabila. Even his most ardent supporters seem rueful rather than optimistic about his campaign.
Tshisekedi's base of support is in Kaisai Occidentale, where he was born. He'll almost certainly win there and, by a lesser margin, in Kasai Orientale. I don't know how much support he retains in Kinshasa: a younger generation of voters no longer reveres him the way their parents did in the late 1980s and 1990s, when he stood virtually alone in his opposition to Mobutu. I see him picking up very few votes outside of the Kasais and Kinshasa. There is some speculation that he might form an alliance with Vital Kamerhe, which would certainly make for a formidable opposition ticket. Were they to win, Tshisekedi would take on the role of head of state while leaving the younger Kamerhe to run the country as a quasi-prime minister. I doubt this is a viable plan, however, even assuming both men were willing to subordinate their egos to the cause of defeating Kabila.
Vital Kamerhe of the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) is clearly the man to watch out for. A Bukavu native, he's fluent in French and all four national languages, the result of having moved around as a child when his father worked for the national bank. He engineered Kabila's election in 2006, so he knows how to run a campaign. His political timing is impeccable: he broke with Kabila in March 2009 after Kabila announced he would allow Rwandan troops into the Congo to hunt down the FDLR. (Readers of the old CR may remember that I predicted then that he might run for president.) And even his opponents grant that he's a gifted orator. I saw him speak in Bukavu; the crowds were huge and ebullient. (I hope to post a video of that speech soon. I also had a chance to conduct a lengthy interview with him in Uvira and hope to post that interview as soon as possible.)
Kamerhe has recently made a number of strategic alliances. The most significant, perhaps, is with Muanda Nsemi, the leader of Bundu Dia Kongo, a religio-cultural movement of the Bas Congo province. (Bas Congo is that fillip of land attaching the Congo to the Atlantic.) The Bundu Dia Kongo are one of those syncretic African offshoots of Christianity, like the Kimbaguists,which seem to have originated largely in order to provide grist for future Ph.D. dissertations. Unlike the Kimbanguists, they never received the approbation of the state, and the sect remains one of the more effective voices of conscience-based opposition to the government. (See here for an interesting write-up.) It's no surprise that the people of Bas Congo oppose the president: Kabila has periodically sent goons to the region to beat up and kill protesters. But it's still interesting that Kamerhe was able to win their endorsement. He is also said to have picked up the support of Katebe Katoto, a powerful Katangan businessman (and older brother of Governor Moise Katumbi) . This may partly offset Katumbi's support for Kabila; perhaps the family considers it smart business to distribute their political support among the viable candidates. Other endorsers include Mwenze Kongolo, a US emigre who joined the AFDL when it was still a Kivu-based rebel movement and rose to become one of Laurent Kabila's closest advisers.
The wild card is Katangan governor Moise Katumbi. He is broadly admired throughout the country and recently topped a poll of the most popular figures in Congo. Perhaps not unrelatedly, in 2010 his soccer team made it to the finals of the FIFA club world cup, the first time any African team made it that far. But even before his team's success he was viewed as a canny operator, shrewd businessman, and effective governor. (Intriguingly, his father was a Sephardic Jew from Greece. One thing you can say in favor of Congolese: Katumbi's mixed race and Jewish background don't seem to have hurt his political career.) Katumbi has ruled out making a run of his own this year, in part because he belongs to the the same party as Kabila, the People's Party for Reconstruction and Development (PPRD). But he's presumably smart enough to know that Kabila faces a tough reelection bid. Were he to run, he'd probably win going away.
Then there's Jean Pierre Bemba, the 2nd place finisher in the 2006 election, who's now languishing in a prison cell in the Hague. He is on trial at the International Criminal Court on three counts of war crimes and two counts of crimes against humanity for failing to rein in soldiers under his command during the civil war in the Central African Republic in 2002-03. His party, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), has been in disarray since his arrest and isn't fielding a candidate in the upcoming election. (For a while there was talk that Bemba might campaign from his prison cell.) [August 3 UPDATE: Since this was written, Jean Pierre Bemba, the MLC candidate from Equateur who is now being tried in the Hague for war crimes, has announced that he will indeed run for president from his prison cell.] The people of Equateur definitely won't vote for Kabila; how many will turn up for Kamerhe is anyone's guess. Bemba's endorsement could still count for a lot.
Finally, there are the sambaza, the tiny fish. These folks aren't actually running to become president. Nor are they running to make a point, as minor American presidential candidates sometimes do (see Nader, Ralph). Instead, they're running to position themselves for a role in whatever new government forms after the election. Example include Joseph Olengankoy and Jean Paul Moka, but there will be dozens more. The names of two technocrats are occasionally thrown into the mix: Pierre Pay Pay, a former World Bank official who got high marks during his tenure as governor of Congo's central bank, and Oscar Kashala, a Harvard-educated oncologist, who came in 4th in the 2006 election. The latter is running again this year, although his chances are probably no better than last time.
The Bottom Line
I see Kamerhe winning Bas Congo, the Kivus, and Orientale by huge margins. Kinshasa will be a stretch: Kinois are political cynics; they take pride in not believing in politicians, which makes it harder for opposition voices to gain traction. (Better the devil you know...) Kabila is running hard there and has the support of Antoine Gizenga, his right-hand man and the acknowledged leader of the neighboring Bandundu province. Bandundu-ites dominate the markets of Kinshasa, and they are reputedly dynamic and well-organized. For these reasons, Kabila will probably eke out a victory in the capital. Katanga will be a toss-up; it's hard to know how hard Katumbi will campaign for Kabila, or how much Kabila's tenuous connection to the province will count. With the Kasais in Tshisekedi's camp, that leaves only the voter-rich province of Equateur, home to Jean Pierre Bemba, in the air. In a tight race, it may just be the man on trial for war crimes who determines the next president of the Congo.