Congo Senate bows to protests, drops reforms seen delaying vote

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo’s Senate on Friday scrapped a proposed change to the election law after four days of deadly protests against the proposal that the opposition said was aimed at keeping President Joseph Kabila in power.

Demonstrators burn tyres to set up barricades during a protest in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa January 20, 2015. REUTERS/Jean Robert N'Kengo

Opposition supporters shouted “Victory! Victory!” on the streets of the capital Kinshasa after the decision was broadcast -- but some of their leaders said they were ready to keep up the political pressure with more rallies.

Western powers this week urged the Senate to drop part of a draft election law that would have required a census to be completed before presidential elections, expected in 2016.

Activists argued that the census would have taken years to organize in an impoverished country the size of Western Europe, allowing Kabila to stay in office.

Kabila, who won a second five-year mandate in disputed elections in 2011, is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. With several long-standing African leaders facing looming term limits, the process is being closely watched across the continent.

Congo’s powerful Catholic Church kept up the pressure on the government by condemning a crackdown on the protests which rights groups said killed more than 40 people.

The Senate agreed to modify the proposed law, which had already been passed by the lower house in its original form, to say that any revision of the electoral list must respect the constitutional deadline for elections.

“We have listened to the street. That is why the vote today is a historic vote,” Senate President Leon Kengo Wa Dondo said after the altered election bill was passed unanimously.

A parliamentary committee will now seek to reconcile the two chambers’ bills before a possible final vote in the lower house - the National Assembly - expected before the close of the current parliamentary session on Monday.

Some in the opposition said they were wary of declaring victory before the final version of the bill was drafted.

“Kengo just used a political calculus to calm down the situation,” said a youth protest leader, who asked not be named, calling the Senate vote a “trap”.

He added that students, who have played a leading role in the week’s protests, would meet later on Friday to decide what to do next.

Pascal Kambale, former Congo country director for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, said the Senate vote represented a major defeat for Kabila and predicted that the lower house would now accept the core of the Senate bill.

But Aubin Minaku -- president of the National Assembly and a close political ally of Kabila -- remained defiant.

“There will be no Burkina Faso in Kinshasa. Stop dreaming,” he wrote on Twitter in reference to a popular uprising that ousted Burkina’s President Blaise Compaore in October after he attempted to override term limits to seek another term.

Writing by Daniel Flynn and Aaron Ross; Editing by Bate Felix, Joe Bavier and Andrew Heavens