Ballots replace bullets as mineral giant Congo holds vote

Coups, rebel conquests, assassin’s bullets — they’ve all ended presidencies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This weekend, the vast central African nation is banking on a new method: the ballot box.

With three main candidates vying to replace Congo’s long-serving leader, Joseph Kabila, Sunday’s elections could lead to the mineral-rich country’s first transfer of power through voting since independence in 1960. But crackdowns on rallies, last minute delays and strong indications that Kabila will still wield influence if his protege, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, prevails threaten to sully that milestone.

“We have suffered a lot under Kabila and now Shadary has come to extend the suffering and poverty,” said Danny Maki, a bystander at a rally held by the president’s coalition in the eastern city of Goma. Opinion polls suggest Congolese don’t have favorable views of either Kabila, who took office after the 2001 assassination of his father, or his anointed successor.

The interest in a peaceful handover stretches beyond Congo, whose volatility and resources have repeatedly drawn in neighboring powers. Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country was the battleground for two regional wars between 1996 and 2003 that caused millions of deaths and cemented the Kabila dynasty.

Elites, poverty

Congo’s abundant resources also make it a crucial market for mining giants including Glencore Plc and Randgold Resources Ltd. and its mix of minerals are essential to the smartphone and electric vehicle industries.

Shadary’s main challenges come from Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi, who both head political alliances hoping to ride a wave of discontent with Kabila’s rule. The economy has expanded fivefold during his reign, and a tiny elite have amassed large fortunes while most of Congo’s 80 million people live in grinding poverty. But a failure to unify behind one candidate will divide the opposition vote in the single-round contest.

Elections are more than two years overdue. Initially scheduled for late 2016, just before the end of Kabila’s second and –- according to the constitution –- final term, authorities postponed the polls. Kabila stayed put, fueling suspicions he’d seek a way to run again.

This whole process is designed to continue the current system with a frontman where Kabila carries on pulling the strings.

His nomination of Shadary, a loyalist and former interior minister, quelled those misgivings, but spawned speculation that Kabila intends to be the power behind the throne. The 47-year-old has refused to rule out another presidential bid when he’s eligible again in 2023.

Exiting the scene seems improbable for a man who’s been a dominant force in Congolese politics for two decades and followed in the footsteps of his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila. The elder Kabila served as president for four years from 1997 after leading the rebellion that toppled Mobutu Sese Seko’s 32-year dictatorship.

Ebola outbreak

Joseph Kabila ended the war, but parts of the country remain riven by insecurity. The east — now fighting the world’s second-worst ever Ebola outbreak — has more than 100 active militias.

With elections looming, the atmosphere has been fraught. At least seven opposition supporters were killed and more than 50 wounded between Dec. 9 and 13 when security forces fired live rounds and teargas, according to Human Rights Watch.

“We are being intimidated,” said Fayulu, a former Exxon Mobil Corp. manager. “My supporters don’t have guns.”

Further turmoil came Dec. 13 when fire tore through an election commission warehouse in the capital, Kinshasa. The organization’s head said voting material for 19 of the city’s 24 districts was destroyed and subsequently pushed back the elections originally scheduled for Dec. 23 by a week.

Crying foul

Kabila’s coalition accused Fayulu of inciting his “militants and sympathizers” to destroy the equipment to force a postponement. His spokesman, Olivier Kamitatu, ridiculed the claim, saying the warehouse was in a militarized, heavily guarded area and “no civilian could ever set a fire in that place.”

The opposition cried foul again on Dec. 26 when the electoral commission delayed elections in the eastern cities of Beni and Butembo until March, citing the Ebola outbreak and persistent militia attacks. The decision excludes 1.2 million voters in areas known as strongholds of Kabila’s critics from selecting the next head of state, who’s set to take the oath of office mid-January. There are about 40 million registered voters nationwide.

Tshisekedi and his running mate, Vital Kamerhe, lead two of Congo’s biggest opposition parties and initially agreed to back Fayulu before reneging. Fayulu is boosted by influential support from heavyweights Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moise Katumbi, both barred by authorities from presidential runs.

Despite the setback, polling by New York University’s Congo Research Group records Shadary trailing the opposition by a large margin — with Tshisekedi topping a survey in October and Fayulu leading a second this week. The data shows “many Congolese are bracing for violence,” said Jason Stearns, CRG’s director.

Kabila’s legacy

The head of the youth league of Kabila’s party, Papy Pungu, said reports of Shadary’s unpopularity are untrue and he’s a worthy successor to Kabila.

Describing the president as Congo’s savior who’s leaving behind a legacy of national reunification and reconstruction, Pungu, a parliamentary candidate in Sunday’s polls, said he expects Kabila to stay on as the head of both his party and the ruling coalition.

“The Congolese still wanted him as the president but unfortunately we have a constitution which prevented it,” Pungu said. “Shadary is in this lineage, this lineage of continuing the struggle.”

Among opposition supporters, pervasive distrust of the electoral commission, Shadary’s superior resources and reports of widespread fraud during the 2011 election mean many still predict Kabila’s favorite will win.

“It’s already decided,” said Albert Moleka, chief-of-staff to Etienne Tshisekedi, Felix’s father, who lost the 2011 vote to Kabila. “This whole process is designed to continue the current system with a frontman where Kabila carries on pulling the strings.”

(By William Clowes)