Congo bishops fear presidential vote won't be free and fair

The March 21 ballot in the Republic of Congo, also called Congo-Brazzaville, will see incumbent President Denis Sassou Nguesso bid for a fourth term to extend 36 total years in power.

FILE: Election officers scrutinise voter registers in Bunia, Ituri, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Picture: United Nations Photo.

BRAZZAVILLE - Congo's bishops' conference on Tuesday said it had "serious reservations" about upcoming presidential elections, saying coronavirus restrictions and a shaky electoral system could undermine faith in the vote.

The March 21 ballot in the Republic of Congo, also called Congo-Brazzaville, will see incumbent President Denis Sassou Nguesso bid for a fourth term to extend 36 total years in power.

"How can we keep up all infection control measures and hold mass rallies necessary to a free election campaign?" the Catholic bishops asked in a statement read to the press by their spokesman, Victor Abagna Mossa.

What's more, "electoral law requires that the counting of the ballots be public. How can this transparency requirement be met with an 8 pm curfew?" the clerics asked.

With around 120 confirmed coronavirus deaths nationwide, the overnight restriction is in place in major cities Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, home to around half of Congo's population.

"We have serious reservations that a peaceful, participatory, transparent, free and trustworthy presidential election can be held under present conditions," the bishops said.

The Church leaders recalled that past elections in Congo have been marred by violence, in a reference to a 2015 constitutional referendum and the fiercely contested 2016 presidential vote.

And they questioned how a first-ever scheme to allow police and the army to vote several days earlier than other citizens would work in practice.

"The Congolese public have less and less faith in the existing electoral system," the bishops said, saying that some dead people were listed on the electoral roll and that the electoral supervisory bodies "have yet to demonstrate their independence".

President Sassou Nguesso, 77, hopes to be re-elected to a fourth consecutive term since 1997, having first ruled Congo from 1979 to 1992.

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