Why Congo Is Bracing for a Bitter, Chaotic Election: QuickTake

(Bloomberg) -- The Democratic Republic of Congo, sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest country, has never witnessed a peaceful transfer of power. Joseph Kabila inherited the presidency of the resource-rich nation from his father, Laurent-Desire, who was assassinated in 2001, four years after he led a rebel army to overthrow long-serving dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The prospects of an uncontested transition after the Dec. 23 election look slim, with opposition parties alleging that moves are afoot to rig the contest in favor of Kabila’s protege.

1. Why are there concerns about the election?

The vote was initially supposed to be in late 2016, but was postponed because the electoral commission couldn’t arrange it in time -- a delay the opposition said was intentional to extend Kabila’s rule. Kabila put fears to rest that he’d bypass a two-term constitutional limit and seek re-election when he announced in August that he’d step down. The ruling Common Front for Congo coalition then chose Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the permanent secretary of Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy and a former interior minister, as its candidate. He’s one of 15 Congolese officials sanctioned by the European Union since December 2016 for allegedly undermining democracy and abusing human rights. Kabila has signaled he’ll remain active in politics and consider running for office when he’s eligible again in 2023.

2. Who else is running?

Shadary’s main rival is Felix Tshisekedi, the leader of the biggest opposition party. He has the backing of Vital Kamerhe, who came third in a 2011 vote. They agreed that Tshisekedi will serve as president and Kamerhe as his prime minister, and they’ll swap roles after the next election in 2023. The only other candidate who could win is Martin Fayulu, a former Exxon Mobil Corp. manager who heads a small party in Congo’s National Assembly and has the backing of four other opposition leaders. They include heavyweights Moise Katumbi, an ex-governor of the mineral-rich Katanga province who was prevented from entering the country to register his candidacy, and Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice president who was disqualified by Congo’s electoral commission because of witness-tampering convictions.

3. Who’s likely to win?

On paper, Tshisekedi has the edge. An opinion poll published in October -- before the opposition coalitions finalized their tickets -- showed him with 36 percent support, Kamerhe with 17 percent and Shadary with 16 percent. Fayulu scored only 8 percent, according to the poll conducted by New York University’s Congo Research Group and the Congo-based Bureau d’Études, de Recherches, et de Consulting International. But a fractured opposition vote in the single-round contest will work in Shadary’s favor.

4. What are the leading candidates promising?

Shadary has pledged to almost triple government spending to raise civil servants’ salaries, create jobs and improve health and education. He’s also undertaken to boost security, especially in the country’s east, which has been wracked by inter-communal violence for more than two decades. He intends to fund his plans by raising more tax revenue from companies exporting Congo’s natural resources. Tshisekedi and Fayulu have both said they will clamp down on rampant corruption, enhance security and promote development.

5. Are there concerns about the vote’s credibility?

Yes. Congo refused foreign assistance to organize the elections and imported 105,000 voting machines from South Korea that’ll print each voter’s choice on the ballot papers. While the electoral commission says the devices will help ensure the results aren’t cooked, the opposition has described them as rigging machines. About 8,000 of the machines were destroyed in a fire at a warehouse in the capital, Kinshasa, on Dec. 12 -- a hitch the electoral commission says shouldn’t disrupt the vote. The opposition also alleges that the electoral register contains millions of “fictitious” names. London-based Global Witness and the Senegal-based Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa have raised concerns that state funds may be used to finance Shadary’s election bid.

6. Why are investors watching?

Congo, a nation of about 81 million, accounts for two-thirds of global production of cobalt, a metal used in rechargeable batteries, and has deposits of gold, diamonds, tin and coltan, an ore that contains a metal used in mobile phones. Glencore Plc, China Molybdenum Co. and Randgold Resources Ltd. are among companies operating in the country. Shadary is likely to stick with a new law that’s sharply raised costs for all mineral producers and imposes a 10 percent royalty on cobalt exports. If an opposition candidate wins, he may be more sympathetic to mining companies that oppose the additional levies. The economy is forecast to grow 3.8 percent this year, and an average of 4.3 percent annually over the next three years, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Human Rights Watch report on a crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Congo ahead of the elections.
  • A Bloomberg story about the ruling coalition’s candidate and another on the alliance between the leaders of the two main opposition parties.
  • A Bloomberg investigation into the Kabila family’s business dealings.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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