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Bloody Protests Force Lawmakers in the Democratic Republic of Congo to Change Controversial Election Plan

A proposed law would have delayed the country's upcoming presidential election pending a nationwide census, but deadly protests prompted a change of plans.

by Pierre Longeray
Jan 28 2015, 2:30am

Photo by John Bompengo/AP

Lawmakers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have agreed to remove a controversial clause from a new electoral bill that triggered deadly protests last week in the eastern city of Goma, and in the capital, Kinshasa.

A paragraph in the bill would have tied the upcoming presidential election to a nationwide census, effectively delaying the polls. Human Rights Watch said at least 36 people were killed in violent clashes over the proposal, including a police officer in Kinshasa and four civilians in Goma.

An amendment that struck the contentious language was introduced Friday by the Senate and passed Sunday by the lower house of parliament. While the U-turn appears to have restored calm in the DRC, many still question the new bill and wonder if it will answer the protesters' long-term demands for fair and transparent elections.

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The DRC includes more than 900,000 square miles of territory, and a national census campaign could take many years to complete, ensuring President Joseph Kabila remains in power.

The country's constitution prevents Kabila — who succeeded his assassinated father Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 2001 — from running for a third term.

DRC government spokesman Lambert Mende told French daily Le Monde on Monday that the protests were caused by a "misunderstanding" that "led people to believe we were trying to tie the presidential election to a census."

A diplomatic source in Kinshasa who wished to remain anonymous told VICE News that, "Calm has been restored and the population appears to be appeased — stores have reopened, traffic has returned."

Last week, protesters flocked to the huge University of Kinshasa campus, where students came out in droves to demonstrate against the bill and its census provision. A sense of order has since been restored.

"Students and professors have returned, classes have resumed. Armed forces are stationed by all the campus entrances," Kinshasa university faculty director Alphonse Pamina told VICE News.

The provisions contained in the latest version of the electoral bill remain somewhat ambiguous. References to local, regional, and senatorial elections, which are scheduled for 2015, ahead of the presidential polls, have vanished entirely from the new text. And, despite senators calling for a written guarantee that timely presidential elections will be held, there are no such assurances in the bill.

The new proposal also remains vague about whether a census must be held ahead of the next legislative elections, due to occur 2016 at the same time as the presidential polls. In fact, the law says parliamentary seats will be distributed according to an "electoral quotient" that will be determined by a census.

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"The opposition and the population have not yet processed [the changes]," the diplomatic source in Kinshasa said. "Opponents of the bill are letting the dust settle. The opposition may have cried victory too soon, without really understanding the new bill's implications."

Speaking to VICE News, Serge Mayamba, a deputy with the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) admitted that, "Emotion took over, we had to listen to the people. Now the aim is to organize elections within the delays dictated by the law."

Jean-Baudoin Mayo Mambeke, a deputy who belongs to the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) — one of the DRC's three main opposition parties — helped draft the bill.

"Rome wasn't built in a day," Mambeke told VICE News. He said the opposition had worked to ensure that the presidential election would be held as scheduled, and were now trying to get the same assurances for the other polls. "We must continue to fight," he said.

According to VICE News sources, the DRC's main opposition parties were scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss the new electoral bill.

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray