Congo opposition candidate accepts election delay, for now

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — We’ll accept a week-long delay in Congo’s presidential election but not one day more, a leading opposition candidate announced on Friday, urging hundreds of angry supporters to remain calm.

Felix Tshisekedi spoke to supporters a day after Congo’s electoral commission announced the latest delay in a vote that was meant to take place in late 2016, moving the election to Dec. 30. The commission blamed a fire last week that destroyed voting materials in the capital, Kinshasa, including thousands of voting machines.

Tshisekedi, who represents one of two main opposition coalitions, calmed supporters who had chanted that they didn’t accept the delay and would go to polling stations on Sunday as once planned.

“If there is a rise in violence, it won’t come from our side,” Tshisekedi later told reporters. He added: “But if there is a new delay, they will have to deal with our supporters.”

Congo’s election will choose the country’s first new president in nearly two decades, after President Joseph Kabila earlier this year eased the concerns of many by announcing that he would step aside after the vote. The opposition had worried that Kabila, in office since 2001, would look for ways to stay in power beyond term limits.

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At stake is a vast Central African country blessed with trillions of dollars’ worth of mineral wealth but suffering from the presence of dozens of armed groups, widespread corruption and largely rotting or nonexistent infrastructure.

Tshisekedi also said his coalition plans to campaign until Dec. 28 despite a recent ban on such rallies in the capital by Kinshasa’s governor, who cited security concerns.

The long-delayed vote has led to sometimes deadly protests, and tensions have been rising again. Earlier this month the U.N.’s special representative in Congo denounced “the obstacles encountered by some opposition candidates during their efforts to hold public meetings in certain cities around the country.”

Several people have been killed in recent days at chaotic opposition rallies in various parts of the country, and the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, warned on Thursday that anyone who “incites or participates in mass violence” could be prosecuted.

The latest election delay has been met with some anger. “No postponement is justifiable,” the coalition of another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, said in a statement late Thursday. It accused Kabila of trying to stay in power and “continue to loot the country.”

Tshisekedi also accused the government of causing last week’s fire to justify the delay.

Kikaya Bin Karubi, Kabila’s special adviser and a spokesman for ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the election commission’s decision to delay the vote “bothers us … but we bow to it.”

Some in the opposition have pointed to statements by the election commission last week that the blaze did not compromise preparations for the vote.

“My feeling is that Kabila’s ruling party doesn’t want an election,” Jean-Baudouin Mayo, secretary-general of the party that has joined forces with Tshisekedi’s, said Friday.

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