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INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP - STATEMENT
The adoption on 17 January 2015 by the Congolese National Assembly of a law, proposed by the government of President Joseph Kabila, that could lead to the extension of Kabila’s term in office has triggered violent protests in the capital of Kinshasa and several other cities. Before protests escalate further, Kabila’s government needs to revise the law and de-link the elections and the census, as was done today by the Senate in a bill that now goes back to the Assembly.
The electoral law extensively modifies existing legislation from 2006 and 2011. Particularly contentious is the call (in Article 8) for a new census to serve as the basis for the voter list and the distribution of parliamentary seats. (The last census was in 1984.) The electoral law was rushed through the Assembly in an extraordinary session that started on 27 December 2014. From the outset, the opposition had rejected the law because they feared there would not be enough resources to finalise a census in time for the election to be organised in respect of the constitutional term limit. (The current timeline for elections is November 2016). The opposition therefore believed that the government’s call for a census amounted to a tactic for delaying the election and giving President Kabila an opportunity to remain in power as long as the census was still being prepared, and perhaps beyond.
The Catholic Church and some ambassadors joined the opposition in asking the government to reconsider the piece of legislation. Today, the Senate has clearly disagreed with the National Assembly and voted to separate the elections from the census. According to the 2006 constitution, both houses of Parliament must now set up a joint committee to reach consensus on the electoral law. If consensus is not reached, the Assembly has the final word, according to Article 135 of the constitution.
The reaction of the Kabila government to the protests has been heavy-handed, involving the deployment of riot police and troops, including the Republican Guard. Demonstrators were violently repressed and there are reports of several casualties. Several opposition leaders have been arrested or had their freedom of movement limited. From 20 January, the government has blocked or limited SMS and internet access.
This surge of protest is the latest and, so far, most violent confrontation between the government and the opposition since the deeply flawed November 2011 elections and is a clear demonstration of the continuing crisis of legitimacy that faces Kabila’s presidency. While regional and international actors have largely focused on crises in the east, there has been little effort to encourage the national government and opposition to create a more consensual political environment. The Senate decision proves that there is no consensus even among the majority group that supports the president.
Both the government and the opposition should demonstrate a willingness to begin dialogue. As a first step, the government should agree with the Senate and de-link the national census and presidential elections. Assurances will also have to be given that the violence of the previous days, in Kinshasa and elsewhere, will be investigated and judicial or disciplinary measures taken against those responsible. The government should refrain from arresting and intimidating opposition leaders, and avoid disproportionate measures such as blocking radio stations and internet access. The opposition should not seek to use the current tensions to stoke further unrest but appeal for calm and ensure its actions remain within the law.
The government and the opposition both need to enter into constructive talks with the National Electoral Commission. The dialogue should focus on building broad consensus on key electoral decisions, in particular a comprehensive electoral calendar under the constitution, and on legal reforms and voter-registration procedures that will result in legitimate and reasonably accurate voter lists. The government also has to proceed swiftly with the installation of the Constitutional Court, which can verify the constitutionality of proposed legislation.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is dangerously volatile. More than ever, it needs stable institutions. Like Burkina Faso, this is another example of the consequences of the attempt to stay in power beyond constitutional terms limit. President Kabila, by respecting the constitutional order, can make a historical contribution to his country.