(Reuters) – Congo Republic’s government announced on Tuesday it would hold a referendum this month on constitutional change, in a move that could allow veteran President Denis Sassou Nguesso to extend his decades-long rule.
The 71-year-old former military commander has ruled Congo Republic, an oil producer, for all but five years since 1979. He won his previous terms in disputed elections in 2002 and 2009.
While Sassou Nguesso has not officially declared his candidacy for the June 2016 presidential election, he is widely expected to seek a third term. The constitution of 2002 limits the number of terms to two and excludes candidates over 70.
“The government is charged with putting the constitutional project at the disposition of the Congolese so that its contents can be widely diffused and debated,” said government spokesman Thierry Lezin Moungalla late on Monday. The vote will take place on October 25.
Clément Miérassa, leader of the Congolese Social Democratic Party (PSDC) which is part of a coalition of opposition parties, called the announcement a “constitutional coup”.
“We will use all possible democratic means to block this project which is a blow to Congolese democracy,” he told Reuters by telephone, renewing an earlier call for peaceful protests.
AFRICAN LEADERS’ TERM LIMITS
With several long-time African leaders approaching term limits in the coming years, the political manoeuvring in the former French colony is being closely watched.
A move by Burkina Faso a year ago to change the constitution to allow President Blaise Compaore to run for a third term led to a popular uprising that toppled him after 27 years in power.
In neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, street violence erupted in January amid suspicions the president was seeking to extend his mandate.
Moungalla said the ruling Congolese Labour Party’s (PCT)campaign will run from Oct 9-23. That will leave little time for the opposition to organise a counter-campaign, said Control Risks senior analyst Christoph Wille.
“This is highly likely to play in Sassou’s favour,” said Wille. “The opposition is weak and has huge funding constraints while the president has so much control over the electoral process and the media.”
Still, critics of Sassou whose Mbochi ethnicity dominates key government posts appear to be growing in confidence. Tens of thousands of people rallied in the capital to oppose constitutional change last month in the largest public protest since the end of the civil war in 1997.
Wille added that there was a risk of localised unrest in the traditionally stable country, especially in the opposition strongholds of Pointe-Noire and Brazzaville.