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To vote, or not to vote?

MBUJI MAYI, 8 Jun 2006 (IRIN) - Abbe MalumaluAmong the many political problems weighing on this giant, war-weary nation as it staggers towards its first elections in 40 years, is the fact that its main opposition has missed the deadline to register.

The opposition is not participating, and it is not easy to fathom why. Initially, the Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social (UDPS) and its leader, Etienne Tshisekedi - a longtime champion of democracy when the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was known as Zaire - called on its supporters to boycott voter registration.

When he agreed to end the boycott in January 2006, the chairman of the Independent Eectoral Commission, Apollinaire Malumalu, said it was too late. "The registration period has closed. We had done everything possible for the UDPS to participate, but the party was not satisfied and set conditions that were not possible for us to meet," he said.

The UDPS counters that the electoral commission missed its deadline, having put back the election calendar numerous times. Now finally, the first rounds of the DR Congo's general elections are set to begin on 30 July, one month after the three-year transitional period laid out in DRC's 2002 peace agreement was supposed to end.

"The deadline is 30 June 2006, after which the electoral commission no longer has a mandate to make decisions about the elections about who can and cannot take part," Valentin Mubake, chairman of the UPDS's National Committee, told IRIN. "They have shown us that they are not able to lead. So, now the main actors have to sit down, along with the international actors [and renegotiate]. It will not take more than two weeks."

Electoral Commissioner Malumalu insists he still has the mandate to decide. "It's a problem of ignorance," he said. "Many people do not read the constitution and the electoral law and do not understand the situation."

On 18 February 2006, the DR Congo held a referendum on a new constitution that Malumalu said gives him a mandate after 30 June to decide when general elections should be held. The result of the referendum was overwhelmingly "yes".

"It states in Article 258 that the constitution of the transition is no longer valid. You can't refer to a constitution that is no longer valid as the basis for a political debate," Malumalu said, adding that according to the new constitution, "there can't be negotiations on the electoral calendar - there can only be consultations, as the law says that the electoral commission must decide."

The Church dissents

In the end, the reasons may be less important than the consequences: "The situation risks becoming unmanageable," said Abbe Paulin Kalala, a priest in Mbuji Mayi, western Congo, who spoke with IRIN in May 2006. Kalala said he represents the official position of DR Congo's Catholic Church, widely seen as the most functional institution in the country. "It is possible and even probable that after the elections there will be conflict and even war, unless we enter into the process of negotiations beforehand."

Malumalu is a Catholic priest himself, but the Church is furious with him, Kalala said. "We are not talking about excommunicating him, but he has clearly gone beyond his mandate."

Malamalu denied he has problems with the rest of the Church. "I think the problem is that there are individuals who understand the Church incorrectly, because they hear an opinion of someone in the Church and they radicalise it and interpret the [electoral] law in their own way."

However, one such opinion comes from the Kisangani's Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo, the head of the Catholic Church in the DR Congo and a key political mediator in the country since the time of Zaire's former president, Mobutu Sese Seko.

The archbishop has publicly disputed Malumalu's claim that the new constitution supersedes the transitional one. He maintained that after 30 June, the electoral commission president does not have a mandate to decide on holding elections. "Nobody can do it alone, unilaterally," he told the Belgian newspaper Le Libre in May. "There needs to be consensus, with a formal decision by the political class and civil society."

Donors in a hurry

That is not the view of the international community: The date for the elections is "a decision that lies squarely in the hands of the Iindependent Electoral Commission," William Swing, special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, told IRIN. "The [UDPS] chose not to participate - very much regrettable - but the process now has to go ahead," he said, adding, "for the credibility of the process and for the stability of the country and the satisfaction of everyone who has been waiting for these elections, it is time to move forward."

Certainly no donor is offering to pay the additional costs of a delay. "The international community is concerned to keep this thing in the new deadline of 30 July," said Swing, who is also the head of the DR Congo's International Committee to Accompany the Transition, which includes the ambassadors to Congo from the donor countries.

The donors have so far given more than US $400 million towards an election that is a massive logistical undertaking in a country the size of Western Europe, but with very few good roads.

Malumalu said the lack of more funds, is one reason he cannot delay further. "Even if a donor were to agree to give the money, [getting it] would have taken at least another one year," he said.

For the Church and the UDPS, the international community is "imposing" bad elections on the Congo. "Instead of helping us prepare for good elections, the international community is helping us prepare for war," said Kalala.

Even people in remote areas of the country can be seen with bright yellow and green PPRD flags and baseball caps.

In May, IRIN also talked with an angry mob of UDPS supporters in a street in the suburb of Limite, a well-known UDPS stronghold in Kinshasa. They were holding what they called a "standing parliament". "This country is not for sale! We will fight for it!" shouted one of them. Another called out, "If we don't get to vote for Tshisekedi, Congo will be another Afghanistan or Iraq."

Observers agreed that the UDPS's bark is worse than its bite. "UDPS doesn't have a history of violence," said one UN official. "They keep saying that the population is going to rise up but it never materialises. We don't expect them to disrupt the elections in any significant way."

Political dinosaur? Tshisekedi, 74, is still revered for standing up to Mobutu despite being frequently imprisoned, even tortured. In 1998 Laurent Kabila - the father of the DR Congo's current president, Joseph Kabila - a rebel who seized leadership of the DR Congo from Mobutu, banned Tshisekedi from politics, sending him into exile for six months.

Tshisekedi is one of the few Congolese politicians not tainted with charges of corruption, and never took up arms or allied himself with any of the armed groups during the country's decade of wars.

However, he has lost a lot of support, said one observer. "I think the reason he is not participating in the elections is because he knows he will not win," he said.

Other observers said Tshisekedi fell into a trap laid by rivals. "Politics is all about trying to exclude your opponent," said one UN official who monitors the DR Congo's politics. "So when Tshisekedi excluded himself, you can't expect his opponents to give him a second chance."

Almost everyone registered anyway

Even UDPS supporters admitted that Tshisekedi made a serious political error telling them not to register to vote. "If we would have registered but not voted, we could have shown the world how many of us are against this election process," said a member of the party in Mbuji Mayi, the provincial capital of diamond-rich Kasai Oriental Province, a party stronghold. In the end, he and many other supporters went against Tshisekedi's directive, but for a different reason. "We were concerned the police would harass us if we didn't have our voting cards," he said.

Some 25.6 million Congolese have registered themselves to vote, out of an estimated 28 million people eligible, according to Swing.

UDPS supporters are being drawn to other parties, the most conspicuous being the main one associated with President Kabila, the Parti du peuple pour la reconstruction et la démocratie (PPRD). Its campaign machinery was spread throughout the country long before 30 June 2006, which is the official start date of the election campaign.

In Mbuji Mayi, a large crowd gathered at the freshly painted PPRD headquarters one Sunday afternoon in May. "PPRD vive! Kabila vive!" they shouted. Benoit Kazadi, the party's provincial secretary general, said he had been a senior UDPS member, but after the fall of Mobutu, "the party was still opposing everything and not giving the future a chance."

Kazadi and other UDPS opponents still call Tshisekedi a national hero. "By lionising him, they are actually undermining his political base," said one official in Mbuji Mayi. "They are wooing away UDPS supporters who do not want to be seen to be traitors."

But even some of the UPDS's opponents seem genuinely concerned about holding elections without Tshisekedi. Eleven registered parties have announced they will boycott the vote to protest the electoral process. The governor of Mbuji Mayi, Dominique Kanku Shambuyi, told IRIN the electoral commission is wrong. "Why didn't they allow the UDPS to enrol?" asked Kanku, who is also a senior member of the former rebel Mouvement pour la liberation du Congo.

Kanku was appointed governor as part of the power-sharing agreement worked out during the 2002 DR Congo peace talks, and is now seeking to be elected to a position which a UDPS candidate might be expected to win if one were to run. If the new constitution were already in place, he said, Congo would not have four vice-presidents as it still does. He went further, questioning the motives of the independent electoral commission. "I call it the 'interdependent' electoral commission," he said.

Unity at stake

The big risk is that after all the years of waiting, these elections will not be seen as legitimate, giving former rebel groups - if they do not fair well at the ballot box - an excuse to take up arms again.

Both the provinces of Kasai Oriental and Kasai Occidental are UDPS strongholds dominated by Tshisekedi's Luba ethnic group. "Here, there is a vast reservoir of discontent," said one Congolese official, adding, "There has even been talk of creating an independent Greater Kasai."

Mubake, the representative of the UDPS, said his party would never seek to secede, but rather, "The warlords will go back to fighting. The failure [of the elections] will be so catastrophic, I think the country will be divided up like Yugoslavia, which is what the international powers want so that they can control it."

Elsewhere in the country, there is pressure not to delay elections. On 2 June, government television showed what it said was an estimated 10,000 Kabila supporters rallying in Kinshasa to tell Malumalu to stick to the current election date. "We want elections on 30 July," one of the demonstrators said. "There is nothing else to discuss."

"[People] are really fatigued from the transition. They want to move on," Swing said. Asked about the risks of these elections igniting renewed conflict, Swing said; "It's very hard right now to look that far down the road to see what might happen. What I can say to you is the international support for the Congo is stronger than it has ever been, and the real challenge now is that we stay the course.

"We think [the elections] are going to go well, he said. We think there is going to be a large participation in them, and we think the country will move forward." Swing made the point that UDPS will get another chance in elections next time around: "If there is going to be a democracy, then there are going to be many other elections to follow."

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