The 84-year-old Tshisekedi was the face of the Congolese opposition for decades, known for challenging the country's political powers as far back as the reign of President Mobutu Sese Seko, when the country was known as Zaire. Tshisekedi's death comes at a crucial time for the Congo, which postponed national elections last year. Though the Roman Catholic Church helped to broker a deal to reschedule the presidential race and ease Kabila from office, the agreement has since gotten hung up on disagreements over power-sharing arrangements between the government and the opposition. Tshisekedi's death could make it tougher for the parties to find a compromise.
The current president, who has been in office since his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated in 2001, finished his second term in 2016. But rather than relinquishing his post, as the Congolese Constitution requires, Kabila opted to delay the next presidential election using the pretext of voter registration issues and a lack of funding for the vote. The country's constitutional court ruled that the president could stay in office until his successor was elected. Since then, however, the ruling party and the opposition have been unable to reach an understanding.
Tshisekedi's death has only added to this air of uncertainty, raising questions as to who will assume the mantle of his Union for Democracy and Social Progress. One possible successor, his son Felix, is a rising star within the party but does not have the full support of its members. Given his family connections (his mother is also an influential party figure), some of the party's strongest supporters are loath to back what might appear to be a dynastic succession. To make matters worse, Felix is a young and mostly untested figure in Congolese politics. His failure to inspire party unity during the succession process could lead to splits that would weaken one of the more cohesive parties in the Rassemblement — the umbrella term for the country's political opposition. The loss of its leadership could create further division among the various opposition groups. After all, even before Tshisekedi's death, they could not agree on whether to engage with Kabila's government.
Another potential (if unlikely) candidate is Moise Katumbi, a wealthy former provincial governor who had been gathering support for a presidential run before the 2016 election was put on hold. But an outstanding arrest warrant against him says that he hired mercenaries in a bid to challenge the government. Katumbi left the country in May 2016, purportedly to seek medical treatment abroad, and he has not come back since. Should he resolve his legal issues and re-enter the country in the runup to elections, when they are rescheduled, Katumbi would certainly be a credible successor to Tshisekedi. But his return is far from certain.
According to the opposition's Dec. 31 agreement with the government in Kinshasa, elections will be held before the end of 2017, at which point Kabila will step down. The deal also called for the president's pledge not to change the constitution before he leaves office or to seek a third term. Moreover, it stipulated that a council would be created to oversee the transition process (before his death, Tshisekedi had been selected to lead it) and that the Independent National Electoral Commission would be reformed.
Although parts of the agreement are in place, its full implementation has stalled over disputes about how the ruling party and the opposition will divvy up government posts. The Roman Catholic Church warned in mid-January that the transition plan, which was not personally signed by Kabila but agreed to by his Alliance of the Presidential Majority, could still fall apart. Even though the coalition's approval is most likely an indication that Kabila's political allies are ready to act without him, the fact that the president did not sign the deal gives him some room to act, should the political winds shift and present him with an opportunity to stay in office.
Nevertheless, Kabila's hand is fundamentally weak. During his 16 years of rule, Kabila consolidated power by pitting members of his alliance against one another — a strategy that worked particularly well for him while in office but that has put him in a difficult position today. His tactics weakened his allies, leaving no clear successor to follow in his footsteps and offer protection to him and his family (as well as to their significant business interests throughout the country).
Over the past month, a growing number of reports have said Kabila's allies have floated the idea of holding a vote on a referendum to remove presidential term limits. But since the party behind him is less than unified, pursuing a plebiscite would be a politically risky move for the president that would doubtless strengthen and unite the political opposition against him. Even if Kabila could somehow engineer a way to stay in office beyond his term extension, doing so would ignite public anger and open the president to threats to his personal safety.
Kabila's current political weakness is the fruit of the divide-and-conquer strategy he employed so successfully throughout his time in office. Yet it is also why Tshisekedi's death — though a notable passing of a giant in Congolese politics — will not do much to alter the country's political course. Because either way, the president needs to balance his fragmented alliance in the months ahead while finding a suitable replacement who will safeguard his interests as the country prepares for the next stage of its difficult political evolution.