Unraveling of Congo's Opposition Pact Boosts Kabila's Protege

(Bloomberg) -- Just a day after seven opposition leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo backed a single presidential candidate to contest next month’s election, two of the most popular politicians pulled out of the deal. A fractured opposition vote boosts the likelihood of Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, President Joseph Kabila’s protege, winning the Dec. 23 contest, while increasing the risk of instability in the world’s biggest cobalt producer.

Unraveling of Congo's Opposition Pact Boosts Kabila's Protege

1. What happened?

Congo’s opposition has never been able to present a united front in elections, yet repeated pledges to nominate a joint candidate this year raised hopes among government opponents that regime change was on the cards. The surprise announcement that the relatively unknown Martin Fayulu would head the opposition ticket was made on Sunday, but presidential hopefuls Felix Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe backtracked on it the following day. While Congolese analyst Tshitenge Lubabu called the decision to name Fayulu a “monumental mistake,” others said it made sense to pick a consensus candidate.

2. How strong is the opposition?

Seventeen years of Kabila’s divide-and-rule tactics have left a trail of shattered political alliances that often blurred the boundaries between those in the opposition and those in power. The opposition suffered a major setback this year when two political heavyweights were barred from contesting the presidency.

The electoral commission disqualified Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice president who was hailed as a national hero upon his return to the capital, Kinshasa, after being acquitted on war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court. Moise Katumbi, a former governor of the resource-rich Katanga province who lives in self-imposed exile, was prevented from entering the country to file his bid. That left Tshisekedi as the opposition candidate likely to mobilize the most support, or least a third of the votes, according to a recent poll. Shadary, the nominee of the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, was forecast to receive about 16 percent support.

Unraveling of Congo's Opposition Pact Boosts Kabila's Protege

3. Can the opposition still win?

It’s doubtful. Unity among the main leaders is crucial for the opposition to defeat Shadary, who’ll benefit from the state machinery that’s helped Kabila stay in power. Fayulu has less than six weeks to get voters on his side in a country the size of Western Europe. And while Tshisekedi and Kamerhe are popular, a split opposition means they’re unlikely to obtain enough votes on their own to win.

4. What happens next?

The chances of the opposition parties ironing out their differences are negligible, and if their alliance fractures further, Fayulu’s chances of defeating Shadary will grow even slimmer. As things stand he’ll need to keep the backing from both Bemba and Katumbi to have even a remote change of winning. Official campaigning is due to get under way on Nov. 22.

5. Will the elections be free and fair?

Congo, which has never had a peaceful transfer of power, has refused foreign assistance to organize the elections. More than 100,000 voting machines imported from South Korea will be used to print the electorate’s preferences on the ballot papers. The electoral commission says the devices will prevent rigging and has brushed aside opposition concerns about a widespread lack of electricity and the fact that confused voters may be assisted when using the touch-screen technology.