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Tear gas fired at DRC protesters against delayed polls

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Tear gas was fired in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Thursday at protesters angry that several opposition strongholds have been left out of Sunday’s polls.

Electoral officials have postponed voting in three cities until March, citing insecurity and ebola concerns.

But with the new president due to be sworn in next month, it appears the votes of more than a million people will be discounted.

The opposition accuses the authorities of seeking to rig the ballot.

DR Congo has not had a peaceful and democratic transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.

President Joseph Kabila, who has been in office since 2001, was meant to have stepped down in 2016.

However, the election to choose his successor has been continually postponed, amid unrest and logistical difficulties in a nation with poor infrastructure.

Opposition supporters suspect Kabila is trying to cling on to power. He denies the allegation and is backing former Interior Minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary in the election.

Where did protests break out?

Voting was postponed in the opposition strongholds of Beni and Butembo in the east, and the city of Yumbi in the west.

In Goma, the main city in eastern DR Congo and also an opposition stronghold, crowds blocked a road in the Majengo neighbourhood and around the university, the BBC’s Gaius Kowene reports from the scene.

Anti-riot police are positioned at some street corners in Majengo, and protesters retreated after tear gas was fired, he adds.

Protests were also reported in Butembo while in Beni, soldiers fired tear gas to disperse protesters, Reuters news agency reports.

 

Is it legal to delay voting in some areas?

The electoral commission said it consulted “relevant parties” before taking the decision, but declined to give details.

Constitutional expert Tresor Makunya told the BBC that only the Constitutional Court – not the electoral commission – can impose limitations on the right to vote.

The postponement of the election in key constituencies will impact on its credibility, he added.

No opposition party has as yet challenged the decision in court, either because they have little trust in the legal process or because they fear it could lead jeopardise the entire poll.

In DR Congo, only presidential candidates can challenge the results of an election in court. Some, like Jacques Ndjoli, a constitutional law professor and an opposition lawmaker, said it would be pointless to do that.

“The court has never issued a ruling that goes against the interest of those in power. I don’t see why civil society or opposition parties would go and bring a challenge to the Constitutional Court considering the judges are allies of Kabila,” he added.

 

So why has voting been delayed in the three areas?

In Yumbi, at least 80 people were killed earlier this month and thousands have fled to neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville amid violence triggered by a dispute over where to bury a traditional chief.

Beni has been affected by an ebola outbreak that has killed at least 300 people since August. Nearby Butembo has seen attacks on civilians attributed to a Ugandan Islamist militia, the Allied Democratic Forces.

Opposition supporters accused the government of attempting to disenfranchise them, and have vowed to continue with protests to force the electoral commission to reverse its decision.

Moise Katumbi, an exile who is supporting opposition candidate Martin Fayulu, said the postponement was “unjustifiable” and showed that “the regime wants to be in power forever to continue its pillage”.

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