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Elections to be held on 30 July, polls body says

KINSHASA, 1 May 2006 (IRIN) - Presidential and parliamentary elections, the first in nearly 40 years since independence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, will be held on 30 July, Independent Electoral Commission Chairman Apollinaire Muholongo Malumalu announced on Sunday.

"This is the most realistic date," he said.

The elections will mark an end of a political transition to democracy that started in 2002 when Congolese political and rebel groups signed a peace agreement, largely ending a five-year civil war in which at least 3.5 million people have died and four million others have been displaced.

Following Sunday's announcement, election campaigns are cleared to begin at midnight on 29 June and end at the same hour on 28 July. The Supreme Court has cleared 33 candidates to contest the presidency and 9,362 will vie for the 500 legislative seats in the country's Parliament.

The announcement of the election date ends a bid by veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi to reopen the registration process for candidates. Tshisekedi, leader of l'Union pour la democratie et le progres social (UDPS), did not submit his candidature for the presidency, neither did his supporters for the parliamentary elections, demanding the reopening of voter registration. The UDPS had also demanded to be included in the Electoral Commission and the organisation overseeing fair media coverage during campaigns.

When these efforts failed to materialise, he called for a boycott of the polls but ended that protest following overwhelming public participation in a constitutional referendum in December 2005.

The elections had been fixed for 18 June but the Electoral Commission said polling would take place later and extended candidate-registration by another 10 days. When that period expired without Tshisekedi's registration, he said his party would take part in the polls, so long as the registration period was extended again. The commission refused.

After this, the commission had to wait for parliament to pass the necessary electoral laws, and for the publication of the final list of presidential candidates before setting the final date.

"Now, we have the electoral calendar; all the speeches, the secret meetings are over," Malumalu said.

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