January 31, 2011 / 12:43 PM / 9 years ago

ANALYSIS-Congo opposition face tricky, not impossible task

* Opposition parties yet to commit despite unity call

* Broken promises open ease task of opposition alliance

* Risk of a weak president after one round poll? By Jonny Hogg and David Lewis KINSHASA/ABIDJAN, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Congo’s opposition parties face the tough task of putting egos and differences aside to unite around one candidate, but the lack of development and peace in the central African state may make their task easier.

President Joseph Kabila has bolstered his re-election bid by swiftly pushing through reforms that scrap the need for a run-off vote in a vote due later this year and, with access to state coffers, he remains the favourite to be re-elected in the mining giant.

But the constitutional reform process has breathed life into the opposition, which is now considering an alliance that analysts say could pose a threat to Kabila’s re-election bid and undermine his legitimacy unless he scores a convincing win.

“I believe the Congolese opposition are capable of achieving a consensus because they don’t have an alternative. There is no second option,” said Ben Clet Kakonde Dambu, a local columnist.

Congo’s opposition parties have been in disarray since the last election in 2006, when Kabila defeated former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba in a run-off, sparking gun battles that killed hundreds in the capital.

Kabila pushed the changes through parliament as his rivals boycotted the vote but the ease of the reforms mask a disconnect between the country’s lawmakers and discontent on the street.

“It’s a challenge, absolutely. But if we can find a solution (to the divisions within the opposition) we can start to do great things,” Remy Masamba, spokesman for veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi’s UDPS party, said.

Tshisekedi has long dogged governments in Kinshasa but he boycotted the United Nations-driven process that led to post-war elections in 2006, and has spent most of the last five years abroad seeking treatment for an undisclosed illness.

But his return in December to Kinshasa drew hundreds of thousands out onto the capital’s crumbling streets in a reminder of the 79-year-old’s persistent appeal amongst Congolese frustrated with the unfulfilled promises of its political elite.


There is now talk of a possible triumvirate, with Tshisekedi linking up with Vital Kamerhe, a former campaign manager of Kabila’s, and Bemba’s MLC party.

Bemba is currently in a prison cell at The Hague, facing International Criminal Court charges of war crimes, but he has not given up hope of running and the MLC is Kabila’s biggest rival in parliament.

All three sides speak of informal contacts being made, but none say official talks have begun or concede they would back any of the others in a race — itself a potential hurdle.

In an interview with Reuters, Kamerhe called for all sides to make concessions, adding primary elections or an arbitration committee could be used to choose. [ID:nLDE70K1TF]

Playing on divisions between opposition parties, however, is a tried and tested technique for incumbents across the continent.

“It is going to be hugely problematic, as it is in other African countries. Ethnic, regional and personal differences tend to push potential allies further apart,” said Chris Melville, senior associate at Menas Associates.

“Control over the state is still the only game in town for Congo’s political elite,” he said.

Yet, if united, the three could secure votes in their respective strongholds — Kamerhe in the eastern Kivus, Tshisekedi in the southern Kasai provinces and the MLC in the north — as well as score heavily in a strongly anti-Kabila capital.

“They seem pretty determined. As a united front, I don’t exclude them beating Kabila,” said one Kinshasa-based diplomat.

A repeat of the donor-funded and closely monitored election of 2006 was never on the cards, but some analysts warn the current lack of international interest could lead to a flawed vote.

One issue, the diplomat said, was that pro-Kabila hardliners are being lined up to be head of the election commission and constitutional council, which must sign off on the results.

Even if Kabila wins, it is unlikely to be with a majority, partly due to the fragmented nature of the country of 60 million, and partly due to a disappointing record.

After five unelected years in power, Kabila campaigned in 2006 as a peacemaker and promised to deliver on health infrastructure and education.

“Those commitments have not been meet,” Melville said.

Large-scale clashes may have receded but localised conflicts simmer and abuse by rebel and government troops is rampant. Congo’s reputation as an investment destination has also been marred by a troublesome contract review process. (Writing by David Lewis; editing by Giles Elgood)

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