* Push for one-round poll points to turbulent year
* Kabila rivals build coalition
By Bienvenu Bakumanya and David Lewis KINSHASA/DAKAR, Jan 7 (Reuters) - A push by Congo’s President Joseph Kabila to reduce elections due later this year to one round highlights fears of a growing alliance against him and heralds a turbulent lead-up to the polls.
Kabila’s supporters say the country cannot foot the bill for two rounds of voting but his rivals, who now include a former heavyweight ally as well as traditional opposition leaders, accuse him of trying to change the rules to secure victory and are threatening to block any such efforts.
Long-starved of real elections and battered by years of conflict Congo held a post-war election in 2006, mostly paid for with hundreds of millions of dollars of donor funding. Kabila defeated former rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba in a run-off.
“It is a tactical move to change the electoral process in (Kabila’s) favour while saving money,” Jason Stearns, an independent author and expert on Congo, told Reuters.
With some 60 million people living across a vast country with a weak central government and strong regional identities, the likelihood of any candidate winning over 50 percent of the vote in the first round is small.
However, Lambert Mende, spokesman for Kabila’s government, said the choice between spending $350 million for one round or double that to hold a run off as well “was clear”.
“The two-round election that we had in 2006 does not suit the interests of our people from a political, economic or security perspective,” Mende added.
The 2006 poll paved the way for renewed investor interest in Congo’s mining and oil industries. But the business environment remains one of the world’s trickiest while conflicts still simmer in the east and rights abuses are rife.
Meanwhile, Congo has slipped down the international agenda, with powers of United Nations peacekeepers, previously mandated to weigh in on internal political issues, diluted and the poll is unlikely to draw as much foreign support or scrutiny.
A single-round election would require a change to the constitution that must be passed by either a referendum or a 60 percent majority in both houses of parliament. Through a coalition formed during the 2006 election, Kabila currently controls about 70 percent of the national assembly and just under 50 percent of senate.
But Kabila’s rivals have vowed to block the move.
“This proposal must be rejected and we will throw everything at blocking it,” said Odette Babandowa, a founding member of the UNC, which is headed by Vital Kamerhe, a former close ally of Kabila’s who has broken away to form his own party.
Since leaving Kabila’s fold, Kamerhe, who was instrumental in securing millions of votes for Kabila in 2006 before becoming a popular speaker of the parliament, has fostered links with established opposition leaders from other key regions.
He has talked openly of a possible second round alliance with Etienne Tshisekedi, an ageing opposition leader who still holds considerable sway in the capital and Kasai provinces.
Meanwhile, he has also held talks with Bemba, who has since been arrested and faces charges of war crimes at the International Criminal Court, but whose MLC party also remains popular in Kinshasa as well as the north and west.
“If (Kabila) changes the rules of the game halfway through the match, we will quit the institutions,” said Francois Muamba, MLC secretary general.
Having campaigned largely on pledges to pacify and rebuild nation whose last war killed some 5 million people, Kabila has little to show for his last five years in power and struggled to quash simmering rebellions in the mineral-rich east.
His government and armed forces are also regularly accused of abuse and corruption, so Stearns warned of the potential threat the as-yet-unofficial alliance between Tshisekedi, Kamerhe and Bemba’s supporters could pose in a poll.
“Kabila would have a very hard time winning a run-off election. This way he gets his challengers to split the anti-Kabila vote, and he could win, even with just 20 or 30 percent of the total vote,” he said.
Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, the influential archbishop of Kinshasa who has played a central role in seeking to resolve the former Belgian colony’s political deadlocks over the last two decades, said this would be unacceptable.
“The president must have a certain amount of legitimacy in the country, be recognised all over and win at last 51 percent of the vote,” he said. (Editing by Giles Elgood)