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Congo Scraps Presidential Run-off Vote in Step Aiding Kabila

Democratic Republic of Congo’s parliament today approved eight constitutional amendments, including one that will eliminate the possibility of a second round of presidential elections.

Both legislative chambers agreed to the amendments, which will increase the power of the president, with more than the required three-fifths majority after a week of debate. The changes now await the signature of President Joseph Kabila.

Thirty-nine-year-old Kabila, who was elected in 2006 in Congo’s first democratic presidential vote in more than 40 years, faces a difficult re-election campaign this year. Armed conflicts and extreme poverty continue to plague the mineral-rich country, which is struggling to overcome four decades of dictatorship and war.

“The changes are going to spark a heated debate within the opposition,” said Jason Stearns, a former head of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Congo who is now a doctoral candidate at Yale University. “If you only have one round, the anti-Kabila vote is going to be split and it will be much easier for him to win.”

“If they’re going to stand a good chance of winning they’re going to need to run a joint ticket,” Stearns said yesterday by phone from New Haven, Connecticut, referring to the opposition.

Of 504 deputies and senators present at the vote today, 485 were in favor of the amendment, 8 opposed and 11 abstained. The total possible pool was 608.

Boosts Kabila

The elimination of a second presidential election round will save the country money and “avoid the risk of undermining peace, national unity and the young Congolese democracy,” Kabila said in a statement he sent to parliament this past week. Without a run-off, a presidential candidate could be elected with only a plurality of the vote.

Kabila asked for the changes to “fill in and clarify” parts of the 2006 constitution that are “ill-adapted to the political and socio-economic reality of DRC,” according to the statement sent to parliament. The opposition boycotted today’s vote, citing procedural irregularities.

In 2007, hundreds died in the streets of Kinshasa when forces loyal to Kabila fought with supporters of his main rival, former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba. Bemba is on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes committed in Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003.

Tshisekedi, Kamerhe

With Bemba sidelined, Kabila’s main opposition will probably be Etienne Tshisekedi, 78, head of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party. Vital Kamerhe, the architect of Kabila’s first campaign and former president of the national assembly, may also run.

The other amendments ratified today give the president the power to dissolve provincial assemblies, fire governors and call referenda. Congo’s formerly independent office of the prosecutor will now answer to the ministry of justice.

Another amendment will delay the division of the country into 26 provinces, compared with the current system of 11.

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