Jailed opposition leader Bemba could tip DRC vote

Facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, former militia leader Jean-Pierre Bemba is not running in the DR Congo’s November 28 poll. He may nonetheless hold the key to victory.


Jean-Pierre Bemba once hoped he would leave his jail cell at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague in time to run in his country’s presidential elections. However, ballots for November 28 in the Democratic Republic of Congo will not include the former militia leader’s name.

Former vice-president Bemba, who is being prosecuted for war crimes at the ICC (see insert below), came in second in DR Congo’s last presidential race in 2006. Though thousands of miles away and behind bars, he could still play a decisive role in next week’s vote.

Bemba’s real influence over Congolese politics is a matter of debate, but he nonetheless continues to control the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), one of the country’s biggest political forces.

In April, the party sacked its secretary-general, and Bemba’s hand-picked successor, François Muamba. His dismissal came after it became increasingly apparent that he was trying to set himself up as the party’s future candidate.

Instead the MLC announced in July that Bemba was their pick for the presidential race, claiming their jailed figurehead was the “only valid candidate to lead the country.” In September the country’s election commission presented the official list of candidates and neither Bemba nor the MLC were on it.

“Bemba does not want someone else to run in his place,” said Pierre Jacquemot, a former French ambassador to the DRC and now a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IRIS) in Paris. “It’s about ego, he is saying ‘the MLC will not exist without me’.”

According to Jacquemot, it is clear Bemba is still calling the shots within the party, but no one really understands his strategy. Merely a week before the election, he has yet to tell his supporters how or if to vote.

Seeking endorsement

The MLC militia was re-founded in 1998 as a political opposition group to Laurent Kabila, then head of state. Kabila was assassinated in 2001, but his son Joseph won the country’s first presidential poll in 2006. In that election Bemba obtained 42% of the votes in the second round, and as much as 70% support in the capital of Kinshasa.

This year all the main opposition candidates have actively sought Bemba’s official endorsement in their effort to challenge Kabila’s reign. Both national and international news agencies have reported on visits to the ICC to discuss potential alliances.

Citing sources close to Bemba, the French-language Jeune Afrique weekly reported in mid-October that negotiations with candidate Etienne Tshisekedi had broken down over a few, specific points, and that talks with candidate Vital Kamere were advancing “more fluidly”.

DR Congo analysts have questioned Bemba’s real ability to influence voters in the current election, saying his success in 2006 had as much to do with distrust of Joseph Kabila. However, even a small change in voting trends could make Bemba kingmaker in the contest.

“The support of Bemba for one candidate or another could be decisive because the results could be very close,” said Jacquemot. “At the moment, according to our own careful research in each province, we estimate Kabila has 35% support and Tshisekedi has 35% support. Just 2-3% could tip the election.”

While Bemba’s silence piles on suspense ahead of the landmark elections, some of his supporters seem unwilling to continue sitting on the sidelines. Interviewed by Belgian journalist Colette Braeckman earlier this month one Congolese expat and Bemba supporter said she and other Bemba loyalists had had enough.

“The MLC, Bemba’s party, is divided, our leader is in prison… Those who want to make their voice heard and to get rid of Kabila are encouraging others to pool everyone’s vote around Tshisekedi,” she said.

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