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Decision on Bemba Ballot Push Could Affect Congo's Election

FILE - Congolese opponent Jean-Pierre Bemba, center, speaks to the press after applying to be a candidate for next presidential elections of December 23, at the office of the Independent Electoral Commission, in Kinshasa, Aug. 2, 2018.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, supporters of former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba are demanding he be allowed on the ballot for the December 23 presidential election.

Congo's electoral commission disqualified Bemba because of his 2016 conviction by the International Criminal Court. The court said Bemba was responsible for war crimes committed by his militia in the Central African Republic.

But in June, the court overturned the conviction and released Bemba from prison. His party, the Movement of the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), argues that the ICC case is finished and Bemba should be allowed on the ballot.

Political commentator Delphin Kapaya says the way the court handles the case will determine the reaction of Bemba's supporters.

"There can be a problem because he enjoys a lot of support," Kapaya said. "If he is disqualified and it's seen he has been barred in accordance with the law, then there will be calm. But if it's seen that he is disqualified because of politics, then his party and his supporters will not accept that. Then that will be the beginning of troubles."

Congo's highest court is expected to issue a ruling on Bemba's candidacy on September 19.

Researcher and political analyst Ntanyoma Rukumbuzi says the court's decision will impact the next president, regardless of who is elected.

"The Constitutional Court may still overrule the electoral decision, but in case he doesn't run [because] the Constitutional Court considers him as not qualified, it affects the legitimacy at some point," Rukumbuzi said.

For decades, DRC politics has been characterized by violence, coups and rights abuses committed by those in power.

Human Rights Watch has accused the government of restricting the movement of opposition leaders and supporters.

The MLC's secretary general, Eva Bazaiba, says her party is not ready for violence with its political opponents.

"We don't want violence, because if you use violence they will say that 'You see, Mr. Bemba was in the jail, now he is free, he came to Congo with violence.' We say that we have to wait for the last decision of the court and we hope that everything will be fine because we need free and fair election," she said.

After many months of tension, President Joseph Kabila recently agreed to step down after 17 years in power. Kabila defeated Bemba in the 2006 election. He has now thrown his support behind close ally Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.