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Congolese Parties Near Deal on Choice To Oppose Kabila

Leaders of major opposition parties in the Democratic Republic of Congo say they are making progress in selecting a common candidate to oppose President Joseph Kabila in November elections. Talks on opposition unity have been held on the sidelines of a conference in Addis Ababa on avoiding election-related violence.

The conference organized by the African Union and the Institute for Peace and Security Studies brought together some of the biggest names in DRC opposition politics. Representatives of the government and the electoral commission were also there.

The two-day session was aimed at minimizing the possibility of violence surrounding the presidential vote, which is tentatively set for November 28th.

But it gave the DRC’s fractious opposition an opportunity to discuss putting aside their differences to mount a unified challenge to President Joseph Kabila. Aime Boji of the Congolese National Union party says the talks are at the point of choosing a common candidate.

"We still have 60 days before the elections," said Boji. "It’s now a matter of taking discussion at the level of heads of two or three main groups of the opposition so they can agree on one candidate who can represent all of us. I’m confident this is going to take place simply because the Congolese people want change and are looking to the opportunity to bring about that change through these elections."

Most prominent among the possible united opposition candidates is Etienne Tshisekedi of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress. But at 78, the veteran politician is almost twice as old as the 40-year old President Kabila, who rose to power in 2001 after his father Laurent Kabila was assassinated.

Joseph Kabila became the DRC’s first elected president in 2006, but the election was marred by violence that left many people dead.

Early campaigning for the November vote has already seen police use tear gas against a group of Mr. Tshisekedi’s supporters, who were protesting alleged fraud in compiling voter lists.

Oscar Kashala, head of another opposition party, says everyone at the Addis Ababa conference is aware that further violence could reinforce Congo’s image as a failed state.

"If it goes wrong, I’m sure Congo will get into big trouble, so it is important that these two blocs of politicians be brought together to think about the process itself but bringing in also a key player, which is the independent national electoral commission," said Kashala. "To ask how we can make this more transparent, free, but also one that won’t be followed by violence."

Other presidential hopefuls, however, said the lack of strong institutions in DRC increases the likelihood that the election will trigger violence. Independent candidate Adam Bombole, speaking in French, said neither President Kabila or the opposition is likely to accept defeat gracefully, the way Rupiah Banda did in neighboring Zambia.

Bombole says Mr. Kabila’s people are not set to leave power if they lose, and the opposition is of the same state of mind.

Oscar Kashala said whatever the election result, the Zambia model is unlikely to work in a country dominated by men, not institutions.

"Congo is sitting on a ticking bomb, because some political parties are leaning on the electorate, incentivizing them to fuel violence in the country post election," he said. "Zambia and Congo share a lot in common, but Zambia has already political behavior that shows political alternatives is a possibility. So they already had the behavior of a losing president leaving the office without violence."

The effort to strengthen democracy and social stability in DRC comes after years of conflict involving neighboring countries that killed as many as 3.3 million people. The United Nations still maintains a large peacekeeping force in the east of the country.