March 7, 2006

Rebel rows, political disputes threaten Congo poll

By David Lewis

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Foreign diplomats are battling to keep
Congo's elections on track as former rebels threaten to pull
out and boycott parliament, and participation by the leading
political opposition hangs in the balance.

With long awaited polls tentatively scheduled for June 18,
belligerent factions are fragmenting and politicians and rebels
are negotiating alliances behind the scenes.

The biggest U.N. peacekeeping force is trying to restore
order and the European Union is considering sending troops.

But fears are growing that President Joseph Kabila's
dominance of the political apparatus could hand him a simple
victory -- upsetting his opponents, including those with guns.

Peace deals concluded in 2003 lured a plethora of rebel
factions out of the mineral-rich bush to join Kabila and
opposition politicians in an interim government meant to guide
the shattered country to elections after the 1998-2003 war.

"If we are talking about a transition to inclusive
elections, everyone must be part of it ... a lot of effort is
going into trying to convince Kabila's people that one group
should not get everything their way," one diplomat said.

"Various groups have concerns that need to be discussed to
ensure that the process remains credible and everyone has a
fair crack," the diplomat added.

The former Rwandan-backed RCD-Goma rebel group, which ran
large swathes of the east in the war and still has hardline
loyalists fighting in the bush, is embroiled in a growing row
with Kabila's faction over the interpretation of the peace
deals on the distribution of seats in the future parliament.

"The failure to respect the ... agreements, as well as the
government's decisions would lead to the RCD disengaging from
the process, which is more and more looking as though it will
only benefit one political family," the party said in a
statement issued late on Monday.

The RCD warned that the lack of faith showed by Kabila's
entourage risked "driving the transition to an unhappy end."


Having originally taken up posts in the transitional
institutions as representatives of the various factions, many
key players have switched camps, defecting to rival groups or
setting up new political parties as alliances.

One of the most high profile defectors is national assembly
speaker Olivier Kamitatu, who left the former Ugandan-backed
MLC rebel group to set up his own party.

Kamitatu defied Supreme Court advice that he should vacate
his parliamentary seat, taking his place in the house on Monday
to cheering from hundreds of lawmakers who denounced attempts
to oust him as "a coup attempt."

Thomas Luhaka, MLC secretary general and proposed
replacement for Kamitatu, said the group would boycott
parliament until Kamitatu and other defectors quit the house.

Congo's elections were originally supposed to take place
last year but wrangling within the government, continued
militia fighting in the east and the logistical nightmare of
organizing a poll in the vast chaotic state forced a year's

The popular veteran opposition party UDPS refused to take
part in the transition, and although it said in January it
would contest elections, the conditions it then set regarding
voter registration and transparency have not yet been met.

Several cities saw rioting last year and mediators appear
increasingly resigned to polls missing the June 30 deadline.

"These various obstacles put together undermine the chances
of elections being held by June 30," Jason Stearns, senior
analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Reuters.

"There is a degree of brinkmanship behind them. But there
is also a reluctance to take part in a process whose conclusion
will lead to a loss of power."

Kabila's camp, however, insists elections will take place.

"We have reached the point of no return," said a presidency
source. "People can jump up and down but we have come so far
that threatening to boycott is childish and too late."