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Republic of Congo – Expert briefing

  • The president is directly elected by absolute majority popular vote through a two-round system for a seven year term
  • Under a new constitution approved in 2015, the Republic of Congo will become a semi-presidential republic with a prime minister. The new constitution also removed presidential term limits
  • The legislative consists of a 66 seat Senate where members are indirectly elected every six years by regional councils using a simple majority vote. The National Assembly has 137 members who are directly elected in single seat constituencies for a five year term
  • In the 2012 National Assembly election the Congolese Labour Party, the party of President Dennis Sassou Nguesso, won 89 seats
  • With the exception of five years between 1992 and 1997, Denis Sassou Nguesso has ruled the country since 1979. In elections on 20 March 2016 he will seek a third elected term in office since retaking power in 1997
  • Follow the election using the hashtags #Sassoufit , #Congo2016, #Team242

In 1960, the Republic of Congo gained independence from France. The first president, Fulbert Youlou, was both a priest and politician. He was initially seen as a man sent by providence, until the ‘Three Glorious Days’, a series of anti-government protests in 1963. After failing to achieve the economic prosperity he had promised, Youlou’s decision to imprison union leaders in August 1963 backfired, and he was forced to resign.

His replacement, installed by the military to head a provisional government, was Alphonse Massamba-Débat. After overseeing the popular approval of a new constitution that paved the way for legislative elections in December 1963, Débat was elected president by an electoral college. An ideological supporter of “scientific socialism”, during his tenure Congo developed close relationships with the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, North Korea and Cuba. However the increasing challenge of reconciling various institutional, tribal and ideological factions within Congo meant that just four years later he was deposed in a military coup led by Marien Ngouabi.

Once installed as president, Ngouabi proclaimed Congo Africa’s first “people’s republic” and sought to establish a Marxist–Leninist one-party state. Elections were held, and a new constitution passed in 1973, but the threat of military rebellion persisted. On 18 March 1977, Ngoubai was assassinated. An interim government was created but it lasted just two years. In 1979, the vice-president of the ruling party Comité Militaire du Parti (CMP), Denis Sassou Nguesso, was appointed president – a position he held until the country’s first multi-party elections thirteen years later.

In 1991 a National Conference began a transition to plural democracy. The result of Congo’s first multi-party elections in 1992 saw former prime minister Pascal Lissouba declared the winner with 61% of the vote in a run-off against Bernard Kolélas. Sassou Nguesso was eliminated in the first round after coming third with just 17% of the vote. Accusations that voting irregularities had invalidated the poll sparked conflict in the country that could have escalated into a civil war had it not been for the timely intervention of Gabon and the Organisation of African Unity.

Increased state repression and sporadic violence progressively derailed Lissouba’s premiership. In 1997, as presidential elections approached, conflict broke out between government forces and those loyal to former president Sassou Nguesso. A four-month civil war resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilian. The conflict ended in October 1997 when rebel forces led by Sassou Nguesso, supported by Angolan troops, took control of the country. In a matter of days Lissouba’s government was dissolved and Sassou Nguesso was declared president, a position he still retains.

An extended transition eventually led to elections in 2002 which Sassou Nguesso won with almost 90% of the vote. His two main rivals were barred from competing. That same year a new constitution granted extensive powers to the president and increased his term in office from five to seven years. Discontent spread and fighting restarted in the Pool region between Sassou’s government forces and rebels led by Pastor Ntumi. A ceasefire was signed in 2003 that allowed Sassou to continue as president. In 2009 he was re-elected with 78% of the vote, although the majority of opposition candidates boycotted the poll in protest against the actions of the regime.

In 2015, a new constitution which included amendments to remove presidential term limits was approved  by 92% of voters in a popular referendum, according to official figures. This allowed Sassou Nguesso to stand for a third elected term in office. Opposition figures contend that the referendum was entirely staged. The official turnout figure of 72% has been hotly disputed; and an estimated 30,000 citizens protested the outcome in person and through social media, venting their frustration on the hashtag #Sassoufit.

With his long-time opponent Lissouba forced into exile, Sasssou Nguesso will face off against eight other candidates in March’s presidential election. His supporters argue that the incumbent provides Congo’s best chance of stability and peace; others fear that a third term would further undermine any chance of stable democracy. The most credible opposition candidate, Général Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko, is one of the few national political figures with his reputation largely intact and has a broad support base across the country. However, with concerns about the independence of the electoral commission and a divided opposition, anything other than victory in the first round for Sassou Nguesso would be a major surprise.