DR Congo

Congo plans landmark elections on June 18

By David Lewis
KINSHASA, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Congo plans to hold legislative and presidential elections on June 18, the electoral commission said on Wednesday, a move welcomed by international observers as a step towards cementing a long-delayed peace process.

Democratic Republic of Congo's parliament approved an electoral law late on Tuesday which will allow the vast, war-scarred central African country to hold its first independent elections in four decades.

"If the law is promulgated by the end of the month, this means the first round of elections will take place on the 18th of June," electoral commission spokesman Dieudonne Mirimo said.

"This is a very, very important step," he added.

President Joseph Kabila was now expected to sign the electoral law, whose absence had been blocking the poll process.

The elections are the final step in a peace process aimed at drawing a line under a five-year war in the Congo -- officially ended in 2003 -- which sucked in six neighbouring countries and killed four million people. Most of them died from hunger and disease caused by the conflict.

Around 17,000 United Nations troops -- the world body's biggest peacekeeping operation -- are in Congo trying to keep the peace and enforce law and order.

The country adopted a new constitution on Saturday, which also paved the way for the historic elections.

"We congratulate the Congolese people for the new constitution and the passing of the important electoral law," Kemal Saiki, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Congo, said.

"We will continue to support the electoral process that will carry on along the lines of the electoral calendar that will be provided."

FOUR MONTHS

According to the electoral commission, it will take nearly four months to complete all the necessary steps for holding elections, from the registration and verification of candidates to the distribution of voting material across the country, which is the size of Western Europe.

Mirimo would not specify when a second round of presidential elections might take place if no candidate gained 50 percent of the vote in the first round.

But observers believe it will be impossible to hold a second round presidential poll before August, which raises the prospect that Congo might fail to meet a June 30, 2006 deadline for completing its electoral process, set in the peace deal.

"At least we now have a clear timetable to work from and use to manage people's expectations for the elections. This is a very significant development," said one foreign diplomat., who asked not to be named.

"There remain however spoilers on the ground and now that we will miss the June 30 deadline, this may give them an excuse to cause trouble," he added.

Polls were originally scheduled for mid-2005 but divisions in the transitional government, continued fighting in the east and the logistical problems of working in a country with virtually no infrastructure produced a delay.

The poll postponements sparked rioting in 2005.

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