On New Year’s Day in the Democratic Republic of Congo 33 women were subjected to mass rape in the eastern province of South Kivu. On the same day, Joseph Kabila, the current President of DRC, proclaimed that the situation in the east of the country was “calm and improving.” The situation in the east, however, is far from calm, and the dramatic changes to the DRC’s constitution that Kabila enacted just days later may undermine the stability of the DRC as a whole.
The constitutional reforms passed in parliament on Saturday deliver many new powers to the ruling government, aiming to strengthen Joseph Kabila’s chances of re-election later this year. Kabila took office in 2001, but it was not until 2006 that he was actually elected, under an electoral system that required the winning presidential candidate to secure over 50 per cent of the vote. This meant a two-round system, where the top two candidates in the first round had to fight out a second round in order to win the absolute majority. Kabila’s reforms mean that in future there will only be a single round of voting, and the next president can now be elected without having secured 50 per cent of the vote.
The implications of these reforms go beyond the electoral system. Firstly, Kabila’s reforms threaten to weaken consensus politics in the DRC. After ten years of civil war and a further ten of brittle peace, consensus is crucial and minorities must never be allowed to wield power over the majority. Secondly, the reforms will undermine regional democracy. The President stands to gain the power to dissolve provincial assemblies and revoke governors without needing the support of the local electorate. Through these directly controlled localities, Kabila would have the power to influence presidential and parliamentary elections. And thirdly, the justice system will suffer through these reforms, with the chief prosecutor now directly responsible to the Minister of Justice, a presidential appointee. As a result, it will become even easier for trials to be politically influenced.
Strengthening central government’s power over distant and semi-autonomous regions might seem sensible in a country where instability and lawlessness are major obstacles to peace and prosperity. It is alleged, however, that the President’s reforms have a more sinister motivation.
Much of Kabila’s power originates in the unstable eastern region of Congo, yet support for the President in this populous region seems to be waning. Now, with a stronger UN presence and former friends becoming vocal opponents, there is a danger that an open and transparent poll will not be good news for Kabila, even under the new electoral rules. Many in the DRC believe that the move to control regional government directly and the call for UN forces to leave east Congo are a response to these changes.
There is, however, one positive development. Kabila has granted opposition representation in a new electoral commission, which will oversee the next presidential and parliamentary contests. While this is clearly a step forward for transparency and balance, it must be noted that the new commission was only constituted after this week’s electoral laws had already been passed through Parliament. But the importance of a balanced electoral commission cannot be overstated: it was just such a body that finally called the election for opposition leader Ouattara in Cote d’Ivoire.
It is vital that the DRC does not suffer the same destructive post-election standoff that has happened in Cote d’Ivoire. The people of my country deserve so much better, not least those victims of the tragedy on New Year’s Day. Our current system of balance and consensus may not always deliver the strong government and firm security we need, but giving excessive power to the government is not the answer. These new laws may, tragically, be the cause of further instability and not its antidote. For those who keep an eye on the DRC, 2011 stands to be a year of change. Many fear, though, that these changes might not be for the better.
Medard Mulangala Lwakabwanga is currently Secretary of the Congolese Parliament’s Committee on Economics and Finance