Negotiations between President Joseph Kabila's political alliance and the Congolese opposition got under way Tuesday in Kinshasa, with the Catholic Church mediating.
In the absence of elections, these talks are being billed as the Democratic Republic of Congo's last chance for a negotiated settlement ahead of the scheduled end of Kabila's second term next Monday.
Catholic Church's role
The Congolese Catholic Church (CENCO) has been tasked with mediating the political negotiations. The most influential delegations at the talks are Kabila's ruling alliance, the presidential majority, and the Rassemblement, the largest opposition coalition.
CENCO hopes the participants will strike a compromise before the week is out, which will dramatically reduce the chances of disorder and violence when Kabila's term comes to an end.
Abbe Donatien Nshole, CENCO's deputy secretary general, said he hopes the talks will be concluded by the end of the week. It does not depend on the bishops, he said, but the goodwill and determination of the participants.
The negotiations have the full support of the international community. The electoral commission failed to organize elections last month, as required by the constitution, which would have selected Kabila's successor, and the president now intends to remain in power until at least 2018.
Without a negotiated settlement supported by the Rassemblement, there are fears that the arrival of December 19 could trigger a period of protest and violent reprisals.
However, major differences remain between the sides, including their interpretations of the constitution.
Rassemblement delegate Martin Fayulu told reporters that Kabila must quit power no later than 11:59 pm on December 19. He said a special regime should be put in place from December 20 and the ongoing talks must determine how to organize and exercise the power of the state after that date.
What happens after Dec. 19?
For the president's supporters, however, the question of who will head the country after December 19 has already been settled.
Lambert Mende, the communications minister and a delegate for the presidential majority, said Kabila is going to stay in office until a new elected president replaces him. According to Mende, the constitution provides that a president leaves only when another president is elected to take his place.
The presidential majority and the Rassemblement also disagree about when the delayed presidential election should take place. Whereas the Rassemblement says it must take place next year, Kabila's supporters argue it cannot be organized before April 2018.