Félix Tshisekedi walks a political tightrope


Three months into Félix Tshisekedi’s presidency, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) still has neither a government, nor a prime minister. Other elements of the new administration have been put in place, such as the Senate, which was elected in March; provincial governors who were elected in April; and the National Assembly leadership, elected last week.

The outcome of all of these processes reflects the dramatic imbalance between the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC), the political platform led by former president Joseph Kabila, and Cap pour le Changement (CACH), the political alliance between Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) and Vital Kamerhe’s Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC).

The FCC took 23 of 24 provincial governors (two elections have been delayed due to violence and the Ebola outbreak), and 91 of 100 senators, consolidating its stranglehold on the executive. The latter contest also allows the clearest insight we have yet into just how the relationship between the FCC and CACH is playing out.

The two parties concluded a political pact in February that is meant to ensure that they cooperate and work together at an institutional level, notably in the National Assembly. In reality, the senatorial elections demonstrate that the relationship is not only imbalanced, but also highly competitive – even antagonistic.

Three months into Tshisekedi’s presidency, the DRC still has neither a government, nor a prime minister

Corruption marred the senatorial elections, with allegations that the FCC bribed UDPS provincial deputies to vote for FCC candidates and not UDPS ones. The incident embarrassed Tshisekedi and his party, and he responded by suspending the inauguration of the senators. Less than a week later he backed down, losing round one of what looks set to be a long series of battles.

Some FCC members privately express frustration at the fact that the coalition is greedy and has no qualms about eclipsing its alliance partner. But making it seem that Tshisekedi has some independence is clearly less important than Kabila’s existential need to keep his fractious coalition together.

This he can only do by continuing to give its members access to power, positions and resources. As long as he can dole those out, he remains a viable leader at the centre of power.

Even so, it will be a tough slog to keep this system working for the next five years when, as FCC members have said, he intends to come back as the FCC’s presidential candidate. Whether Kabila really intends to do this is another question. It is possible that keeping this myth alive is another element in his strategy to keep his alliance intact.

If, on the other hand, he really does want to return to the presidency, he has to keep Tshisekedi from succeeding and from garnering real popular support.

It’s too early to assess the direction the DRC’s new president will take in the next five years

There is also the question of Tshisekedi’s own intentions and ambitions. Many have assumed that he wants to assert his independence from the Kabila camp and that the best strategy now is to support him in doing so. But this is a man who came to power as a result of a political deal that denied the real winner the presidency, and the Congolese population its vote.

It is too early to assess the direction he will take in the next five years, and whether he can and wants to take the risks necessary to fundamentally start to change the nature of governance and politics in the DRC.

This would require tackling corruption, patronage politics, reforming politicised institutions such as the Independent National Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Court and breaking up the networks of military-economic interests that maintain the current status quo.

This would be a tall order for anyone, even the real presidential winner, Martin Fayulu, who would have had popular support and legitimacy and would have been unfettered by a political compromise with the domestic and regional elites that drive and depend on the system.

Even if Tshisekedi’s ambitions are focused on his personal political future rather than national interests, he will be on a collision course with Kabila when it comes to the 2023 presidential elections. It is doubtful that he will stand back and not run again, or that his powerful entourage of UDPS militants will allow him to walk away from power.

If Kabila wants to return to the presidency, he has to keep Tshisekedi from succeeding

It is this same entourage, led by Jean-Marc Kabund, that forced him to abandon the Geneva pact that elected Fayulu as the opposition candidate. Their view is that they fought in opposition for decades alongside Étienne Tshisekedi, and that their victory now is as much if not more theirs than Felix Tshisekedi’s.

And then there is Kamerhe, the DRC’s most successful political chameleon. Currently Tshisekedi’s chief of staff, Kamerhe’s personal ambition is to be president. Will he wait until 2028, when Tshisekedi has completed a second mandate, or will he try to force him to stand back in 2023? Kamerhe is one of the DRC’s most skilful and wily politicians. Will he put these skills and these relationships at Tshisekedi’s service? Only if it benefits him.

But even if Tshisekedi spends the next five years trying to create his own political networks so that he can win a second mandate in 2023, rather than for the good of the country, the centre of power in the DRC cannot but start to shift. But change will be incremental and fitful – not tectonic, which is what many voters are expecting.

The many competing ambitions that the stolen election has given birth to will mean that competition and political survival strategies will overshadow the business of governing, at least for the medium term. Nonetheless, skilful interventions – especially from key international partners – may yet be able to turn this into an opportunity for real change in the DRC.

If Tshisekedi and Kamerhe are open to receiving the kind of support that will allow the new president to gain in stature while also making a tangible difference to how the country is governed, it may be possible to make the best of a bad situation.

Stephanie Wolters, Senior Research Fellow, ISS Pretoria

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