Influential bishops in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday urged President Joseph Kabila to pledge he will not seek a third term in office, aiming to ease fears of unrest.
Roman Catholic bishops last year helped broker a deal under which elections for a new president would be held in 2017.
However, the ballot has been delayed, with the country’s electoral commission blaming logistical problems.
Under international pressure, the mineral-rich but chronically poor and politically unstable country has now scheduled the vote for December 23, 2018.
The bishops, after holding an extraordinary meeting on DRC’s crisis, called on Kabila “to reassure public opinion” that he will not be a candidate “to his own succession,” they said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the first round of a review into electoral reform got under way Monday at the National Assembly, stoking tension among lawmakers.
The bill is due to be passed by Friday and written into law no later than December 15, according to the schedule, but members disagree over the details.
– Threshold dispute –
The text aims to create a “legal threshold of representativeness” in parliament to discourage “fanciful candidatures” and promote “groupings of political parties”, interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadari said, adding DR Congo has 703 political groups.
Shadari claimed “everybody is against” the threshold, although Henri Mova Sakanyi, secretary general of the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), said it would “allow us to be much more comfortable”.
In power since 2001, Kabila’s prolonged rule has already led to street protests and a bloody crackdown. He was to have stepped down in December after a constitutional maximum of two terms in office.
However, he is allowed to remain in office until a successor is elected, according to a court ruling.
The electoral commission declared that organising a vote in the vast central African country was not possible before March 2019, before the DR Congo’s foreign partners upped the pressure and a timetable was issued.
– ‘Opening of Democratic debate’ –
“It is essential, on the grounds of (demonstrating) sincere political will, to reassure the Congolese people and international partners by providing guarantees that elections will effectively be held,” they warned.
The bishops also called on the government to publish a funding plan for the poll and to ease constraints concerning political prisoners and exiles.
The authorities made arrests ahead of an opposition march on November 15, sparking concern from the United States, Switzerland and Canada about limits on the freedom of expression.
Despite these worries, the government banned rallies due this week in Kinshasa over Kabila’s extended rule. It prompted DR Congo’s former colonial power Belgium to urge a more open dialogue.
“The measures on the demonstrations don’t really do much to ease tensions,” said Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, in Kinshasa to inaugurate a new Belgian and Dutch embassy.
“We would like to see in the coming months a real opening of the public space and democratic debate.”
Two decades ago DR Congo collapsed into the deadliest conflict in modern African history.
Its two wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s dragged in at least six African armies and left more than three million dead. The east of the country remains a battleground for rival ethnic militias.
Kabila took office after his father Laurent-Desire Kabila was assassinated in 2001 at the height of the Second Congo War.
He was confirmed as leader in 2006 during the first free elections since independence, and re-elected for a second term in 2011 in a vote marred by accusations of fraud.