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Electoral process irreversible, Kabila says

KINSHASA, 17 May 2005 (IRIN) - At a ceremony held on Monday to present the Democratic Republic of Congo's newly adopted draft constitution, President Joseph Kabila urged all Congolese to rally in support of democracy, saying that following the adoption, the country's electoral process was irreversible.

"I want to reassure our population that the [democracy] train is in motion; the process is really irreversible and the elections will certainly take place," he said.

The draft constitution, adopted by the country's parliament on Friday, was presented to Kabila, to make public, in preparation for a referendum on it within six months.

The international community has hailed the draft constitution as an important step towards democracy in a country struggling to emerge from years of armed conflict.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has been a leading broker in ending the conflict, attended Monday's ceremony.

In a statement issued in New York, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also "welcomed" the move.

Following the adoption, Kabila's office must now translate the draft constitution into four official languages in the country and publicise the document while the electoral commission prepares the referendum on it. The parliament must pass a law on the referendum and another one on general elections.

Among the 226-articles in the draft constitution, one of them lowers the minimum age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30, thus allowing President Kabila, 33, to run. An elected president will be limited to two five-year terms in office.

The constitution calls for a semi-presidential system, with a prime minister to be elected by the parliament following presidential elections. He will provide checks and balances, said Kanga Bongo, a member of the Senatorial commission that amended the draft.

"The president can only take some decisions after consulting with a prime minister with the advice of parliament," he said.

Another article of the constitution recognises all ethnic groups living in the country at the time of independence in June 1960. This seeks to settle the contentious issue of the identity of Tutsis in eastern Congo who have been the target of attacks, which have been a justification for two wars in the country since 1996.

The draft constitution divides the country into 25 provinces, plus the capital Kinshasa. This, said a parliamentarian, Raphael Luhulu, is the result of compromise between federalists and unionists.

The date for the elections remains open. They have been set for June 2005 but last week the electoral commission went before parliament to request an extension. The new constitution, like the transitional constitution, allows for an extension until June 2006.

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