Let’s start with the good news – the lower chamber of the DRC parliament has finally begun discussing a bill to reform the national electoral commission (CENI), which played such a pivotal role in the shameful presidential and parliamentary elections of November 2011.
And from the flow of the initial debate in the National Assembly, there seems to be a broad consensus from both sides of the aisle on the need to effect profound changes in the structures and functioning of the CENI as a way of turning the page – and hopefully starting a new chapter that will lead to better and fairer local and provincial elections next year.
But now for the bad news.
As predicted by many people, the government colluded with the Bureau of the National Assembly to play a dirty trick and present a hastily drafted government bill in preference to a better and more carefully prepared bill that was drafted by a civil society expert committee (under the auspices of AETA – Act for Transparent and Peaceful Elections) with OSISA’s support and was endorsed by an opposition MP as a private members bill.
At the opening of the September parliamentary session, the Bureau formally announced the Okundji Bill (named after Emery Okundji, the MP from Kasai Oriental Province who endorsed it) among the pile of bills set out for consideration during this session and sent the bill to the Bureau d’Etudes – the expert committee that provides technical support to parliament and edits the format of private members’ bills that are sent to the government for comment. A whole week after the opening of the session and while the Okundji Bill was awaiting the government’s comments, the executive suddenly announced that it now had its own bill, which it sent overnight to parliament.
The Bureau of the National Assembly then moved remarkably quickly and tabled the government’s bill for general debate. The bill has since been sent to the Commission des Affaires Politiques, Administratives et Judiciaires (PAJ – the standing committee on political, administrative and legal affairs) for what is usually a more technical and more serious consideration – or at least consideration and debate that is less prone to political grandstanding.
However, this may well not be the case this time round. Given the critical importance of an impartial and effective electoral commission, the debate around reform of the CENI was always going to be politicised as much as possible. And in the very first meeting of the PAJ, opposition MPs walked out when it became evident to them that their colleagues from the ruling majority were under instruction to ensure that the government bill passes with no significant amendments – and were certainly not going to countenance a serious discussion of the important difference with the Okundji bill.
In particular, there are two very notable – and critical – differences between the two bills.
Firstly, the Okundji bill provides for broader internal consultations within the CENI and has clear built-in mechanisms to check the powers of the CENI president. The government bill has none of these vital checks and balances, leaving the CENI vulnerable once again to political manipulation as happened in 2011. And secondly, the Okundji bill provides for broader and more influential participation by civil society in the CENI. Needless to say, this is not a priority of the government’s bill.
And the opposition walk out is not the first indication that the government might have overstepped the mark and could face a political backlash. During the general debate, opposition MP after opposition MP took the floor to lambaste the poor quality of the government’s bill and to propose amendments – most of which borrowed heavily from the Okundji bill. This was made possible because AETA – and Emery Okundji himself – ensured that the bill and other relevant material ahead had been circulate ahead of the debate to individual MPs, as well as providing additional information to a number of MPs.
And AETA is currently preparing more material, including a comparative analysis of the two bills, which they are planning on distributing to PAJ members in an effort to influence the work of the committee – even though the governing majority has clearly been ordered how to act and vote.
One of the main reasons behind the government’s sudden change of heart is the upcoming Francophonie summit, which the DRC will be hosting. The French President, Francois Hollande, apparently only endorsed Kinshasa as the host city if the DRC government agreed to implement a number of key reforms, including restructuring the CENI. Initially, the government felt compelled to allow the Okundji bill to go ahead to show Hollande that action was being taken. But the executive clearly realised that it would appear ridiculous for such an important reform process to be led by an opposition MP – so the authorities rushed their own poorly-written bill onto the parliamentary agenda in order to save face.
Most analysts think this face-saving tactic was done just so that it is on the record that the government did something on CENI reform. But they all agree that the bill is so badly drafted that the only sensible approach would be to use the Okundji draft as the basis for the final bill.
Sadly, the government has never demonstrated a sensible approach to the CENI – not before, during or after the farcical 2011 elections.