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Congo: Candidates kick off presidential election campaigns

November 20, 2023

As President Tshisekedi prepares to run against more than 20 candidates, the opposition is still discussing a joint candidate. Conflicts besetting several parts of the country threaten to hamper the political process.

Felix Tshisekedi Tshilombo waves to supporters after he filed his candidacy for the December presidential elections
President Felix Tshisekedi waved to supporters after he filed his candidacy for the December election in early OctoberImage: JUSTIN MAKANGARA/REUTERS

Campaigns for the general election on December 20 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were launched across the country last weekend.

But they are taking place against a backdrop of community conflicts in several provinces.

President Felix Tshisekedi, the 60-year-old incumbent who came to power in 2018 following a disputed vote, is seeking reelection. On Sunday, he officially launched his campaign at Martyrs' Stadium in Kinshasa, where he was cheered on by 80,000 supporters, despite steady rain.

Tshisekedi praised the achievements of his government, stressing that his free education policy had been a success, although "our brothers in the FCC [the opposition’s Common Front for Congo — Editor's note] told me that I would not succeed."

He called on supporters to give him a second term to consolidate his achievements. "The others will come and start from scratch. It is better to consolidate what we have started," he said.

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A new coalition for Tshisekedi

A power-sharing agreement with his predecessor Joseph Kabila's FCC allowed Tshisekedi to be sworn in as president in 2019. This weekend he complained that the agreement had hampered his government's performance for the first two years of his presidency, before it broke down at the end of 2020.

For the 2023 election, the incumbent has formed a new coalition called Sacred Union of the Nation.

Esther Mampuya, an activist for Tshisekedi's new political platform, attended the launch of his campaign in Kinshasa.

"All we want is a second term to show what he is capable of doing for this country. He can make changes that people think are impossible [to make]," she told DW.

A total of 26 people are running for the presidency, including some high-profile candidates like Martin Fayulu, a 66-year-old former Exxon Mobil executive.

Opposition seeking united front

Fayulu, who came second in the 2018 election, disputed the outcome of the vote at the time, claiming he had been robbed of victory.

On Sunday he launched his campaign in Bandundu, around 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) northeast of the capital.

Surgical gynecologist Denis Mukwege, who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against sexual violence as a weapon of war, is running for the first time.

One of the president’s most serious rivals is Moise Katumbi, who launched his campaign in the city of Kisangani, in Tshopo province.

Katumbi, a millionaire businessman and former governor of the copper-rich Katanga region, is supported by former Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo, who has withdrawn from the race.

Representatives of the main opposition parties started talks in Pretoria, South Africa, last week to decide on a potential joint candidate to challenge Tshisekedi.

"Urgency dictates a single opposition candidate," Matata said in Pretoria, accusing the Congolese government of preparing "massive electoral fraud".

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Fayulu told the Reuters news agency that "the question of a joint candidacy will certainly be discussed in due course." But he stressed that the main concern in South Africa had been to agree to ground rules for holding a peaceful election.

Insecurity threat overshadows campaigns

The country's east has been racked by fighting for three decades. The conflict flared up again recently, after the M23 rebel group, allegedly supported by Rwanda, occupied much of North Kivu province.

There are concerns the election campaigns could be hampered by this and other conflicts in several parts of the country.

"The conflicts were accentuated by him [Tshisekedi] when he descended into tribalism," Jose, a resident of Lubumbashi who did not want to give his last name, told DW. He was referring to violence between the community of Kasai, from which Tshisekedi hails, and that of his rival Katumbi, in Katanga. Jose accused the president of fomenting strife.

"We want these conflicts to end, and for there to be jobs and peace in this country," Mutampwa, another Lubumbashi resident, told DW.

Students in Goma marching for peace
Peace is a top priority for Congolese votersImage: Benjamin Kasembe/DW

An election beset by difficulties

A recent report from the global think tank International Crisis Group (ICC) outlined several factors putting the upcoming election at risk.

"Political tensions are rising. Preparations for the polls have included controversies and missed opportunities for improvement," the report reads. The ICC pointed out the "considerable logistical and political challenges" for the Independent National Electoral Commission, and accused the commission and the government of making little effort to guarantee transparent elections.

"The government must keep its security forces in check in order to allow for all parties to campaign," the ICC wrote, adding that party leaders should avoid inflammatory language and call on their supporters to not use violence during protests.

More than 43 million registered voters are eligible to take part in the general election.

According to the Independent National Electoral Commission, a record 25,832 candidates will run in the legislative elections, while 44,110 candidates will also run for provincial and 31,234 for municipal councils.

Edited by: Cristina Krippahl