Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Second-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.
The surprise victory by presidential candidate Felix Tshisekedi in January 2019 was initially hailed as a huge step forward for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But despite hopes for a first democratic transfer of power since the country's independence, in the following weeks evidence has continued to emerge strongly suggesting the election was thrown to Tshisekedi by former Congolese President Joseph Kabila after term limits forced him to end his 18 years in office.
On the surface, handing over the presidency to a political opponent may seem counterintuitive. But it actually is part of Kabila's plan to continue his control over the Democratic Republic of the Congo's government and mining sector by proxy — limiting Tshisekedi's room to govern and influence policy in the process.
After more than two years of delays and uncertainty, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is finally on the other side of a contentious presidential election. Results from the Dec. 30, 2018, election were viewed with great skepticism by local, regional and international players. But with the dust now settled, realpolitik has kicked in, allowing new President Felix Tshisekedi to try to turn the page on the election. Tshisekedi, however, has entered a political system still largely dominated by his predecessor, Joseph Kabila — limiting the new president's ability to make policy changes.
Kabila's Contingency Plan
Tshisekedi's tainted election victory was a masterstroke for Kabila: It enabled the former president to deflect accusations of running in a rigged election, while still ensuring the continuation of the existing system of power by other means.
And indeed, this covert strategy — coined Kabila's "Plan B" — has so far played out. In the days after the country’s national electoral commission announced Tshisekedi as the winner, Kabila's Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition took a commanding majority in the country's national assembly. The FCC also secured 22 of 26 provinces in the legislative elections, thereby guaranteeing that the vast majority of the country's governors (who are selected by the provincial legislatures) hail from the former president's orbit.
Moreover, the coalition's renewed strength over the provincial legislatures (which appoint the members of the country's Senate) means that the powerful position of Senate president — which is next in line to the presidency — will be headed by a Kabila-selected figure as well. Further boxing in Tshisekedi's political influence, large parts of the country's law enforcement and internal intelligence agencies are still beholden to Kabila after years of accepting his patronage. These security forces will likely remain loyal to the former president for the foreseeable future, at least until Tshisekedi can take over these patronage networks for himself.
Mining Congo's Business
In order to accomplish anything substantial during his presidency, Tshisekedi will need to work within the system he now finds himself in. The new president has already demonstrated his willingness to be pragmatic on certain fronts, namely, on matters related to the country's lucrative mining sector.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to roughly 50 percent of global reserves of cobalt, which is used to make batteries for electric vehicles, among other things. This means the country enjoys a clear advantage over foreign mining operations — and will retain that leverage thanks to the increasingly in-demand resource for at least the next five to 10 years.
Well aware of this advantage, the Kabila government adopted hardball measures against international mining companies last year. Critics have warned that these measures — which include higher royalties, new taxes and efforts to increase value-added processing industries — are shortsighted, and could push foreign companies to pack up and leave the Congolese cobalt market in the long term.
But despite these concerns, Tshisekedi appeared to declare his support for Kabila's actions in the Congolese mining sector in mid-February, when he unexpectedly announced that he would back the government's most recent mining code and so-called win-win contracts. This follows earlier reports that either Tshisekedi or his chief of staff had met with multiple mining executives to hear out their complaints about the new measures. The president's mid-February statement, however, suggests that the trend of stiffer rules for international mining companies is here to stay under the new administration.
Pawn or President?
In the short term, Tshisekedi and his Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party will actively try to work within the Kabila-dominated political system to carry out at least some of their agenda. The key question going forward will be where he draws the line in acceding to the will of his predecessor.
With nowhere to turn, Tshisekedi will be forced to form a sort of joint regime with Kabila.
Tshisekedi recently promised to free all political prisoners, who include many incarcerated because the Kabila government deemed them a threat. Now that he is president, Tshisekedi will be pressured to act on this pledge, placating the demands of his UDPS party and its supporters who have sought freedom for political prisoners for many years.
When it comes to the mining industry — where Kabila, his family and his allies remain key players — where he might draw that line becomes even murkier. According to some reports, Kabila and Tshisekedi struck a deal in the run-up to the election. Should this prove true, such an agreement would almost certainly ensure that Tshisekedi's administration would not move to undermine the Kabila system's control of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's profitable mining sector — which continues to fill the former president's coffers.
In the long term, it will therefore be important to monitor how the relationship between Tshisekedi and his allies evolves on one hand — and how Kabila and his allies evolve, on the other. Given the Kabila coalition's solidified control over the country's political system, a bumpy relationship with his predecessor would likely further constrict what little influence Tshisekedi has in the government.
With nowhere to turn, Tshisekedi will thus be forced to form a sort of joint regime with Kabila, creating an image of a new chapter in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's long and turbulent political history — if not the reality of one.