Changes at the Democratic Republic of Congoâ€™s Constitutional Court could clear the way for President Joseph Kabila to run for a third term, opposition politicians and activists said, deepening the central African nationâ€™s political crisis.
Kabila, in power since 2001 and constitutionally barred from seeking another term, a week ago announced the appointment of three new judges to the court. Two are well-known allies, fueling concern among the presidentâ€™s critics that his supporters could press for rulings permitting him to run in elections scheduled for December.
â€œThe Kabila clan will now do everything to push big decisions and big questions to the Constitutional Court and the court will respond in favor of Kabilaâ€™s political family,â€ opposition lawmaker Martin Fayulu said by phone from the capital, Kinshasa. The Presidential Majority, Kabilaâ€™s ruling coalition, said the nominations were â€œcompletely normal and legal.â€
Mineral-rich Congo has never had a peaceful transfer of power and any attempt to further extend Kabilaâ€™s rule would outrage his opponents, most of whom say he should have stepped down when his second term finished in late 2016. Elections werenâ€™t organized in time and Kabila remained in office, sparking sporadic protests in which security forces killed dozens of people.
The electoral commission, known by its French acronym CENI, has scheduled polls for Dec. 23. Kabilaâ€™s refusal to indicate whoâ€™ll be the candidate for the Presidential Majority has spurred speculation heâ€™ll seek to change or reinterpret the constitution to run again — or even delay the vote.
The president, parliament and the High Council of the Judiciary each appoint three judges to the nine-member Constitutional Court.
Kabila chose Norbert Nkulu Kilombo, ambassador to Rwanda and a member of his Peopleâ€™s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, while parliament named Francois Bokona, whoâ€™s also a lawmaker for the party. The High Council nominated Jean Ubulu Pungu, one of its former heads.
â€œThe judges donâ€™t work for Joseph Kabila or his Majority,â€ said his coalitionâ€™s spokesman, Andre-Alain Atundu. â€œThey work for the interest of all.â€
Bokono declined to comment on his appointment when contacted by phone.
â€œEveryone has his own perceptions and convictions,â€ Nkulu said, declining to comment on criticism of his appointment. â€œIn all the countries of the world itâ€™s the head of state who names all those who fill our position,â€ he said.
Paths to Power
Opponents see several scenarios by which Kabila could extend his rule.
Ahead of Congoâ€™s last vote in 2011, a constitutional amendment changed the presidential election from a two-bout contest to a single round. Kabilaâ€™s supporters may argue heâ€™s only served one term under this revised constitution and seek a court ruling backing that claim, according to Georges Kapiamba, president of the Congolese Association for Access to Justice, a local non-governmental organization.
An attempt by Kabilaâ€™s backers to file his candidacy at CENI would likely be rejected, but that decision could be appealed at the Constitutional Court. That chamber could then rule heâ€™d been wrongly rejected him because the 2011 amendment â€œequated to a change of regime,â€ according to Kapiamba.
Alternatively, he said, pro-Kabila parliamentarians could petition the court to seek an interpretation that would let him run again. Fayulu said heâ€™s concerned over the role the court will have in resolving any electoral disputes, or that it could allow CENI to again delay the polls.
â€œThere is an intention to take actions at the Constitutional Court which are outside the popular will and outside the constitution,â€ said Eve Bazaiba, secretary-general of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, a major opposition party. â€œItâ€™s one of Kabilaâ€™s strategies because he doesnâ€™t want to leave and he hasnâ€™t selected his dauphin.â€