***As seen in The New York Times***
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — To take the political pulse of this sprawling, mineral-rich country, head to the busiest stretch of Lumumba Boulevard, one of the capital’s main roads. On weekdays, a large crowd gathers here to peer at the newspapers posted on an eight-foot-high wall and loudly trade opinions on the news of the day.
Recently, the shouting has been about President Joseph Kabila’s plan to carve the country’s 11 provinces into 26, which many Congolese see as a ploy to delay the coming presidential election and allow Mr. Kabila to “slide,” as people here say, into a third term.
“We already know these are political maneuvers,” said Theo Balsomi, an unemployed college graduate, as he jostled with others to get a look at the newspapers on a recent afternoon. “Knowing the reality of our country, we have lived through many regimes. We won’t allow Mr. Kabila to slide for even a second. The whole population would oppose that.”
Mandated in 2006, the plan to split the provinces lay dormant until the president revived it in March. The new provinces have been named, but elections for governors and other leaders have yet to be held.
Before voting for a new president in 2016, the Democratic Republic of Congo must go through a series of elections on the local and provincial levels. Mayors, village chiefs and councils must be named, and deputies and governors need to be elected in the provinces. The longer this process takes, the more likely the presidential race will be postponed.
Under Congo’s Constitution, the president is limited to two terms. However, delays in the packed electoral calendar, which is already months behind schedule, are stoking fears that a postponed presidential election could allow Mr. Kabila to stay in power for months or even years longer.
Mr. Kabila, who rarely speaks publicly, has yet to say explicitly that he will step down in 2016. When asked about the sudden push to divide the country into 26 provinces, the communications minister, Lambert Mende, said the president “should not leave office, should not end his second term without giving what had been decided in 2006.”
This is not the first time this year that the president has been accused of trying to alter the election schedule to stay in office.
In January, lawmakers began debating a bill pushed by the government that would require a census to be conducted before the 2016 presidential election. Experts said that process could take years, complicated by the lack of infrastructure in a country more than three times the size of Texas. The president would stay in power for the duration of the census.
Opponents to Mr. Kabila’s rule, led by rival politicians and youth activists, have called this a plan to push back the election and allow the president to hold on to power. In response, thousands of people took to the streets across the country. At least 36 people were killed by security forces before the government backed down and altered the bill to allow the election to take place without a census.
“The Congolese people say, rain or snow, there will be a change in leadership in 2016,” said Vital Kamerhe, leader of the Union for the Congolese Nation, an opposition party. “Either he respects the Constitution or he’ll be pushed out by the people.”
Instead of a census, the opposition has asked for a reassessment of the electoral rolls, which have not been updated since 2011, to add more than five million young Congolese who have since reached voting age. At the moment, those voters would not be eligible to vote in 2016. A number of youth movements have sprouted throughout the country, holding prodemocracy rallies and calling for electoral change.
The protests speak to the population’s desire for a legitimate democratic process, said Ntanda Nkere, a political science professor at the University of Kinshasa. “Anything that counters that perspective will be highly contested,” he said, adding that the national objection could be similar to the protests in January.
The 2011 presidential election was tainted by serious irregularities and voter fraud, according to American and European electoral observers. Mr. Kabila’s second term began in controversy, with protests erupting and his main challenger also claiming victory. The Independent National Electoral Commission, tasked with organizing the elections, says it has invested money and manpower to ensure that the 2016 elections are free and fair.
The electoral calendar calls for 11 elections from October 2015 to November 2016, a majority of which have yet to be organized. Local elections are scheduled to start in two months, but they cannot begin until the new provinces are established. This stalemate has members of Parliament, the opposition and the Roman Catholic Church calling for changes to the calendar. They want to postpone the local elections until after the provincial and presidential contests have taken place.
“We’re not saying the local elections don’t hold importance,” said Leonard Santedi, a leader in the influential Roman Catholic Church. “They’re important, but we have to be realistic.” He added: “We need to agree on a calendar. If not, how can we have peaceful elections?”
The electoral commission controls the calendar, but its reluctance to change it has fueled the belief that it is taking its cues from Mr. Kabila. Some international organizations have questioned the commission’s legitimacy.
A leading opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, has called the commission, known here as CENI, an accomplice to Mr. Kabila’s apparent plan to stay in power.
“CENI cannot continue to play this role,” said Bruno Mavungu, the party’s secretary general. “We should focus all of our energy and the little money that the government does have into holding the legislative and presidential elections next year.”
The elections will cost $1.4 billion, according to government estimates. As of now, the government is $900 million short, a gap the electoral commission hopes to meet with international contributions and donations. In May 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry promised $30 million on the condition that Mr. Kabila step down in 2016.
The commission says it has yet to receive those funds. “Stability in Congo influences stability and peace elsewhere,” said a spokesman for the commission, JeanPierre Kalamba Mulumba. “We hope, in good faith, that they will support us.” For many Congolese, however, stability will require Mr. Kabila to stand aside.
If he does not, said Mr. Balsomi, who spent most of the afternoon voicing his frustration near the newspaper wall on Lumumba Boulevard, “the people will take matters into their own hands.”