And the good news for Obama...

A statistical lifeline, of sorts.

In just under three weeks, America goes to the polls for the midterm elections. And whichever way you cut it, things aren't looking good for the President's party.

Polls of voting intention are showing the Republicans an average of six points up on the Democrats. Fivethirtyeight.com, a political forecasting site that came impressively close to predicting the election result in 2008, reckons that the Dems will lose control of the more than 30 seats in the House of Representatives, handing the chamber to the Republicans.

The party should just about keep its majority in the Senate; but there, too, it's likely to lose seven or eight seats, with such solidly blue territory as Pennsylvania, Illinois and Wisconsin looking likely to fall.

The president's people know they're in trouble. Obama, his wife and vice president Joe Biden are all doing the obligatory tour of town halls and rallies in small town America to drum up support, and the begging emails from the Organising for America campaign group have been increasing in both frequency and hysteria. (One dropped into my inbox yesterday morning, apparently from the president himself, bearing the exciting subject line "I want to meet Jonn". This was momentarily flattering, until I realised this offer was only open if I paid for the privilege, and even then I'd have to take part in a lottery first. Cheek of it.)

But still, anything other than retaining control of both Houses of Congress is going to look like a defeat for the president. And that is not going to happen.

I don't want to underplay the effect that a Republic victory would have; it will, after all, make it much, much harder for President Obama to implement his preferred policies on everything from healthcare to the deficit.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to assume that a defeat now means a Republican president in 2012. Think back to 1994, the last time the Republicans retook Congress in a revolt against a Democratic president. That was a landslide - the so-called Gingrich revolution, when eight Senate seats and 54 House ones fell to the red team. Two years later, though, Bill Clinton won a second term. It wasn't even close.

In fact, look back through history, and it's clear that a midterm defeat for the governing party is actually the norm. The opposition to the president's party "won" the midterms against Reagan in 1982, Nixon in 1970, Eisenhower in 1954, Truman in 1946... All of them went on the win the next election.

It's far more unusual, in fact, for the governing party to win the midterms. The Republicans did so in 2002, but that was largely off the back of 9/11. Before that, to find a two-term president whose party won his first midterms, you have to go all the way back to 1934, when there was another national crisis to worry about. So while a Democratic defeat on November 2nd does mean that the electorate is angry with Obama, that doesn't necessarily mean they won't re-elect him in two years time.

Of course, one-term presidents, too, have a tendency to lose the midterms. But the president's electoral prospects will depend on a lot more than what happens on 2 November. After the election, the pundits will start telling you he's finished. Don't believe a word of it.

Jonn Elledge is a London-based journalist. In autumn 2008 he wrote the New Statesman's US election blog.

 

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage