Congo Faces Increased Instability as Key Vote Date Approaches

  • Opposition says Kabila delaying vote to remain in office
  • Protest acction will be difficult to ‘control,’ analysts say

The Democratic Republic of Congo faces an increasing likelihood of larger protests as the country approaches election deadlines, even after the main opposition alliance led a national strike on Tuesday that drew mixed support.

The opposition called on students and workers to stay home after it withdrew from planned talks on the organization of elections and demanded the removal of an African Union-appointed facilitator, Edem Kodjo. While the streets of the capital, Kinshasa, were quiet on Tuesday morning with many shops closed and fewer cars on the streets, in other cities commercial activity was less affected.

Etienne Tshisekedi, the leader of the opposition alliance, announced plans for more protests in Africa’s biggest copper producer in the run-up to Sept. 19, when, according to the constitution, President Joseph Kabila would normally have to call the election, 90-days before the end of his term.

“We are set to see a significant escalation in tensions as we approach a number of key political deadlines,” said Ronak Gopaldas, head of country risk at Johannesburg-based Rand Merchant Bank. The strike “can be seen as a possible precursor of what to expect as the country begins to navigate a very complex and potentially messy political situation,” he said by phone from Kinshasa.

Election Delays

The presidential vote was scheduled for November but is facing delays because of a voter-registration process, which the opposition says is a deliberate attempt by Kabila to extend his 15-year rule. Opposition leaders claimed success in Tuesday’s strike, though experts said it was difficult to assess levels of public commitment to the strike.

“It is hard to distinguish between people who stayed at home as a positive and explicit statement that they want an alternation of power and people who stay at home to avoid trouble with the law or violence,” said Kris Berwouts, an independent analyst on Congo.

In January 2015, protests against an attempt by the government to change the electoral law left at least 36 people dead as opposition supporters clashed with security forces.

The government and the opposition has lost the ability to mobilize and control protesters, making the outlook for future demonstrations more unpredictable and more dangerous, Berwouts said. Both "are aware they lack the capacity to steer and manage spontaneous demonstrations" that can turn violent, he said by e-mail.

Kodjo, the former Togolese prime minister, yesterday pushed ahead with the planned dialogue, beginning talks with other opposition parties to agree on a new election timetable. He said that other groups could join the dialogue at any time but confidence in the process among many opposition leaders is low.

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