In Congo, the presidential candidate field is taking shape

With opposition parties in the Democratic Republic of Congo preparing to select presidential candidates, the 2011 presidential election is gearing up.

Michael Kooren/AP
Congo's former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba, left, is seen in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands on Nov. 22. The trial of Bemba, 48, on charges of rape, murder and pillaging is only the third to get under way at the International Criminal Court since it began work in 2002.

Although President Kabila said that the election campaign will not begin until mid-2011, one can consider that the unofficial race kicked off today with the arrival of veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi. He had been in "medical exile" for three years in Belgium. According to preliminary reports, several thousand people turned out at the airport to await the 77 year-old (he turns 78 next Tuesday). Many more lined the streets between the airport and his residence in the Limete suburb.

Tshisekedi's UDPS party will be holding their first national congress next week, and their leader will have to try to mend the cracks in the party that have emerged to his alleged less-than-democratic rule, as well as the frustration than many Congolese still feel for his boycott of the 2006 elections. In the east, where he was never as popular as in his Kasaian homeland and Kinshasa, "TshiTshi" is still derided for his alliance with the Rwandan-backed RCD during the Inter-Congolese Dialogue in 2002. Judging by recent comments in the Belgian newspaper – he called Kabila "a genocidaire" – the elections will be hotly contested.

Other presidential candidates are about to enter onto the scene, as well. According to sources close to Vital Kamerhe, the former head of the national assembly is likely to announce his new political party before the end of the year. The party has been registered since at least July this year, but Kamerhe has repeatedly delayed its official presentation. He will then also have to renounce his seat in parliament, as required by the constitution for MPs who switch parties. The only two ruling party MPs who are rumored to be joining him are two former governors: Jean-Bertrand Ewanga (Equateur) and Claudel Lubaya (Kasai Occidental).

In the meantime, the main opposition party is in disarray and risks being eclipsed by these other candidates. The MLC has still not begun internal debates about their electoral strategy for next year, in particular who their presidential candidate will be. One reason for this, according to MLC officials, is that Jean-Pierre Bemba is still holding out that possibility that he might run himself, from prison if need be. His case is unlikely to be finished by the end of 2011 – the Lubanga trial is now close to two years old, and the Bemba case just began last month. "His ego is preventing our internal debate about the elections," an MLC official told me.

The presidential election is not the only thing people are worried about. In the past few months alone, 33 new parties have been registered, according to a UN official. There are reports that former North Kivu governor Eugene Serufuli might finally formally break with his RCD party - he has been locked in a fight with Azarias Ruberwa for the past year over the direction of the party - and create his own party. And US-based oncologist Oscar Kashala is arriving in Kinshasa this week to begin his presidential election campaign, as well.

One of the first battles will be over the composition of the electoral commission. According to the electoral law, the parliamentary majority appoints four commissioners and the opposition three. This has been done, but the majority is pushing for a steadfast Kabila associate – Daniel Mulunda Ngoy – to become the president of the commission, which many feel could seriously compromise the commission's credibility. Mulunda Ngoy ran a controversial disarmament NGO called PAREC that traded bicycles, agricultural equipment and cash for weapons and made a botched attempt at resettling FDLR combatants in Katanga (they turned out to be mostly Congolese). More importantly, he is seen to be deeply partisan. Talks with the opposition, however, do not appear to have produced a compromise.

Jason Stearns is a Congo expert who blogs at Congo Siasa.

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