Congo Contenders: The Key Figures Expected to Run for President

(Bloomberg) -- Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila evoked former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko when he addressed lawmakers anxious to hear whether he’ll run for president again.

“I know why there is some tension in the room,” he told the packed chambers of parliament in the capital, Kinshasa, on July 20. “It’s because there are those who think that today I would say ‘Ladies and gentlemen, understand my emotion!’ I will not say ‘Understand my emotion!,’ but rather ‘Understand my passion for Congo!”’

Twenty-eight years ago, Mobutu, in power since 1965, tearfully uttered the first phrase as he announced the end of one-party rule and plans to usher in democracy -- a pledge he failed to honor before a civil war erupted. What Kabila meant by the second phrase may become clearer in the next two weeks, as the electoral authority on Wednesday opens registration for candidates planning to compete in the vote set to be held on Dec. 23.

Any attempts by Kabila to extend his 17-year rule would outrage his opponents and risks destabilizing the world’s largest cobalt producer, which hasn’t had a peaceful transfer of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960. Congo’s constitution bars the 47-year-old leader, who won elections in 2006 and 2011, from seeking a third term, but his critics fear he may alter or reinterpret the rules to run again.

Key Aspirants

Opposition groups have raised the possibility of withdrawing from the elections if Kabila stands, but whoever fronts the campaign of the ruling Common Front for Congo, whether the incumbent or a dauphin, will likely face one or more opponents capable of drawing large crowds in parts of the vast country. Aspirants must file their candidacies by Aug. 8. The following are the key personalities tipped to run for president in December:

Felix Tshisekedi, 55, succeeded his late father Etienne as the head of Congo’s largest and oldest opposition party in March and has already been designated its presidential candidate. While he’s yet to command the levels of devotion inspired by his father, Tshisekedi could score well in the central Kasai region and Kinshasa. Until 2016, he was mainly based in Belgium, removed from Congo’s political fray, which might count against him.

Moise Katumbi, a onetime Kabila ally, has fared best of all potential candidates in recent nationwide polls, but his ability to participate in elections is in serious doubt. The former governor of cobalt-rich Katanga province announced his bid to succeed his old boss in 2016 and has built a platform called Together for Change, but he faces legal challenges. Already convicted for illegally selling a property, Katumbi is the subject of investigations into allegations he hired mercenaries and held dual nationality while an elected official. Katumbi, 53, says the probes are politically motivated. He plans to return to Congo from Belgium by the close of registration and may face arrest.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, 55, was acquitted of war crimes at the International Criminal Court in June, after spending a decade in prison in The Hague. He was one of four vice presidents who served under a power-sharing arrangement for three years from 2003 and came second in the 2006 election. Bemba fled Kinshasa after his troops clashed with Kabila’s and was later given an 18-year sentence for murders and rapes committed in 2002 and 2003 in neighboring Central African Republic by fighters from the Congolese rebel group he then led. His unexpected return to the political scene is a wild card. Bemba’s party, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, has selected him as its presidential candidate and he’s set to return to Congo on Aug. 1. He could perform well in west and northwest Congo -- if the authorities don’t obstruct his bid.

Vital Kamerhe, 59, cut his political teeth as a close associate of Kabila and ran the president’s first campaign in 2006. He was an effective president of the National Assembly following the election until 2010, when he broke with the ruling party to establish his own opposition group. Kamerhe finished third in a presidential election the following year, picking up 31votes in his eastern home region of South Kivu, where he may do well again. His party, the Union for the Congolese Nation, is set to pick its candidate on Aug. 4.

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