By Aaron Ross
(Reuters) – Police fired tear gas on Monday at demonstrators trying to protest against a parliamentary debate on a proposed census in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s which, if approved, could delay next year’s elections.
Under the constitution, President Joseph Kabila will not be able to stand in the 2016 ballot, and critics say the government plan to insist on a census ahead of any vote might enable him to prolong his hold on office.
The mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo has some 65 million people spread across a nation as big as western Europe, with little infrastructure and difficult communications making any census highly difficult.
The government says it can complete the work within a year and argues that the survey is needed to ensure fair and transparent elections.
The situation in Congo is being closely followed after a move by Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore last year to extend his own time in office led to mass rallies that swiftly forced him to flee.
Opposition leaders called for protests in Kinshasa ahead of the debate, but police sealed off roads near the parliament and fired tear gas to prevent a few hundred demonstrators from advancing towards the building, a Reuters reporter said.
Another rally on Sunday against the proposed change to the electoral law was also dispersed by police firing tear gas.
Kabila came to power in 2001 after the assassination of his father. He won elections in 2006 and 2011, though the second vote was marred by widespread allegations of fraud.
Some of his allies have called for the constitution to be revised to allow him to stand in a third election, but others, including the powerful governor of the copper-producing Katanga province, have come out against it.
A complicated census could allow Kabila to remain in office beyond the end of his mandate without having to push through a potentially tricky revision of the constitution, critics say.
Kabila himself has refused to comment on his political future. In remarks to local dignitaries in his home province of Katanga last week, he dismissed discussions about 2016 as a distraction from his political agenda.