by PETER DÖRRIE
After three days of heavy clashes between protesters and police, Congolese Pres. Joseph Kabila caved to public pressure, abandoning his attempts to tamper with the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s constitution.
Had Kabila been successful, the two-term president would likely attempt to remain in power after the 2016 presidential elections. Kabila is legally prohibited from serving a third, five-year term.
It’s not as dramatic as the sudden removal from power of long-time Pres. Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso late last year. Kabila is still the president and has options to make sure he stays that way.
But it’s still a big deal. Here’s why—the protests make it eventually possible for Congo to have its first peaceful transition of power in 55 years.
The demonstrators, mostly university students, paid a heavy price. At least 36 people died, with opposition parties claiming more than a hundred killed by security forces in the major towns Kinshasa, Goma and Bukavu.
The demonstrations came as a reaction to a proposed amendment to Congo’s electoral law, which passed the lower house of the Congolese parliament. The amendment would have required a census before the upcoming elections.
The problem is that the DRC is roughly as large as western Europe, except with few roads and even fewer paved ones. Requiring a census before the polls would have pushed back the electoral calendar almost indefinitely.
Some of Kabila’s allies floated the idea of removing the two-term limit from the country’s constitution, but met stiff resistance from the public, opposition parties and the powerful Roman Catholic Church.
The protests—as well as intense international pressure—had their desired effect.
The Congolese senate struck the criticized passage from the electoral law, and sent it back to the lower house of parliament, complete with language pushing for a tighter electoral calendar. On Sunday, the lower house gave in and passed the revised version, which has now entered into law.
With the dreaded census out of the way, Kabila may have to give up the presidency. There’s a good chance he will. Frustration with the Kabila administration has grown far beyond the usual opposition parties.
Many of Kabila’s strongest supporters deserted him, among them political heavyweights from his home region—the mining powerhouse of Katanga. That’s a major shift from the 2011 presidential elections, when the regime easily squashed protesters upset at irregularities.
But at the same time, don’t underestimate the status quo. While politically weakened, Kabila is arguably more militarily powerful today than in 2011.
Some of the stronger rebel groups in the country’s east have been eliminated in recent years, thanks to an aggressive United Nations peacekeeping force and a somewhat reformed Congolese army.
This means Kabila and his entourage could escalate political tensions into outright civil war. The president could also find another legal loophole to extend his rule beyond 2016.
Already, Kabila’s team is pushing for administrative reform, which would increase the number of provinces and diminish the power of regional strongmen in favor of the central government.
Another proposed reform would exclude candidates with foreign parents from running for president, taking some of the DRC’s most prolific politicians out of the running for the country’s highest office.
The opposition has announced further protests for this week, obviously eager to capitalize on its recent victory. But at the moment, all bets are off when—and whether—Congo will have its first peaceful transition of power since independence.