KINSHASA, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Defeated Congolese presidential contender Jean-Pierre Bemba will run for a senate seat next month in the capital Kinshasa where he commands fanatical support, his spokesman said on Tuesday.
The former rebel leader lost to incumbent President Joseph Kabila in a tense Oct. 29 run-off vote after an election process marked by sporadic violence, in which soldiers loyal to the two rivals fought several fierce gunbattles in the sprawling city.
Bemba, who took just under 42 percent of the votes, initially claimed there had been widespread cheating, raising fears of more violence in Kinshasa. But he later accepted defeat, saying he planned to lead the political opposition.
A native of Democratic Republic of Congo's northern Equateur province, he has chosen to stand in the Jan. 16 senate elections for one of the seats reserved for Kinshasa, where Kabila is deeply unpopular.
"He was a presidential candidate for the entire country," Bemba spokesman Moise Musangana said on Tuesday. "Congo is his country, and he can stand for election wherever he wants."
Bemba's decision to join the opposition rather than challenge the poll outcome was a relief to many in Congo, where a 1998-2003 civil war killed an estimated 4 million people, mainly through hunger and disease.
But some fear a Bemba-led opposition could be marginalised and even forced back onto the streets, particularly as Kabila's majority in the new parliament has allowed his lawmakers to alter procedures for choosing members of key commissions.
Kabila's political power base lies mostly among Swahili-speakers in the east of the vast, mineral-rich former Belgian colony. The 35-year-old president speaks poor Lingala, the language of the west and Kinshasa.
Bemba, one of the government's four vice presidents in the transitional period before the elections, has been accused of war crimes by neighbouring Central African Republic, which has asked the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate atrocities it says were carried out by his men.
Membership of the senate confers a level of immunity from arrest and prosecution which can only be lifted by fellow parliamentarians, according to the country's constitution.
The presidential polls were Congo's first democratic elections in more than 40 years, meant to usher in a new era of stability.
Funded with over $500 million from the international community and policed by the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, it is hoped they will put a definitive end to decades of corruption, mismanagement, and violence.
According to a list released by Congo's electoral commission on Tuesday, 1,141 candidates will vie for 108 seats in a new upper house of parliament next month. Senators will be chosen by members of Congo's 26 recently-elected provincial assemblies.
Bemba's Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) did well in western provinces and Musangana said he believed there were enough party members and allies to guarantee Bemba a seat.
"The MLC has a majority in Kinshasa," he said. "We hope to get through at least five of our senate candidates in the capital alone."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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