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Stakes high for vote on draft constitution

KINSHASA, 15 Dec 2005 (IRIN) - Almost 25 million voters in the DRC could prepare the way for the country's first presidential and parliamentary elections if they accept the draft constitution that is to be presented to them on Sunday in a referendum, senior diplomats said in Kinshasa.

"A yes vote is indispensable in order to hold the next round of elections and to bring an end to the transition process," the ambassadors of China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States said in a communiqué published on Tuesday by the UN Mission in the DRC, known as MONUC.

The five countries are the permanent members of a council, known as the CIAT, to assist the DRC's transition to democracy. The lead donors of the elections are Belgium, the former colonial power, and the European Union.

A coalition of 44 political parties is opposed to the constitution. The coalition's spokesman, Theodore Ngoy, said on Tuesday, "A yes vote would sell the country out to the international community and subject it to all sorts of pressure."

He said the constitution was flawed and that there had been insufficient public debate on the document.

On Wednesday, the leader of the main opposition Union pour la democratie et le progres social (UDPS) party, Etienne Tshisekedi, called for a boycott of the referendum saying any other approach would contribute to legitimising a process that was not credible. The 'No' coalition is taking a different approach to Tshisekedi, calling on voters to reject the constitution at the polls. Coalition leaders are also calling on supporters to hold a demonstration on Friday.

Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of the Union pour la democratie et le progres social party, has called for a boycott of the referendum, saying any other approach would contribute to legitimising a process that was not credible.

"A no vote would be a statement on the way we are being ruled through trickery, lies and manipulation," Pierre Anatole Matusila, a leader in the local Roman Catholic community who is opposed to the document, said on Tuesday.

Matusila is critical of many articles in the constitution especially those regarding the presidency, which he says gives "sacred" powers to the head of state.

"Even if he wrongs the nation," Matusila said, "he cannot be brought to trail by a court of justice during his mandate."

He added, "We don't want to create dictators."

The draft constitution is supported by President Joesph Kabila and all four vice-presidents who represent the various armed groups that came together to form the transitional government following the 2002 peace agreement in the DRC.

They say the constitution contains all the ingredients for a modern open society, including articles on freedom of expression, political freedoms and a free market economy. The constitution also provides for a decentralised political system with each province keeping 40 percent of its revenue earned.

"There are improvements that could be made to the constitution but international and local experts have put considerable work into it and the predominant view is that the forthcoming government will be able to work with it," Jason Stearns, a senior analyst on Central Africa at the International Crisis Group, said.

If the referendum is rejected the timetable would be further delay presidential and parliamentary elections which were supposed to have taken place by June 2005. It would also likely mean that the election process would require additional donor funding.

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