On December 20, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had been a democracy for the past decade (flawed though it was), lost that distinction. The backsliding of democracy in the country was preventable; it unfolded slowly and under the watch of the international community. DRC President Joseph Kabila, faced with the end of his constitutional mandate, had two options: call elections or resort to repression to stay in power. He chose the latter.
Kabila’s ultimate decision is not that surprising. He faces deep levels of unpopularity. A Congo Research Group poll of 7,545 Congolese showed that he would have only received 7.8 percent of the vote if elections had been held this year. Furthermore, the presidency guarantees his safety. As Brian Klaas of the London School of Economics has noted, 43 percent of African leaders have been jailed, exiled, or killed after losing power since 1960. Klaas highlights how the current developments in the Gambia showcase the difficulty of stepping down: “Yahya Jammeh initially accepted electoral defeat until he realized that he would face prosecution. He’s now clinging to power through every means available to him.” Kabila is likely doing the same because he knows his post-tenure fate could be perilous.
The backsliding of democracy in the country was preventable; it unfolded slowly and under the watch of the international community.
In recent years, Kabila had made it increasingly clear that he would seek to remain president following the end of his second term. Immediately after the 2011 election, Evariste Boshab, deputy prime minister in charge of the interior and security, as well as a close ally of Kabila, traveled to Lubumbashi and tried to cobble together support for a potential third-term bid. That would have required a constitutional amendment—a hard sell. The constitution, which Kabila himself promulgated early in his first term, reads: “The number and length of the mandates of the president cannot be the object of any constitutional revision.” Kabila—powerful but not omnipotent—failed to get the constitutional changes he
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