By Aaron Ross
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo will press on with a lengthy overhaul of its voter lists, authorities said on Thursday, fuelling opposition fears that the government is trying to delay landmark elections.
The presidential poll currently slated for November is meant to herald the Congo's first-ever peaceful transition of power.
But critics have accused President Joseph Kabila of trying to cling onto power by postponing the vote. The president, who can not stand for a third term because of constitutional term limits, has refused to comment publicly on his political future.
Organizers said they would launch a tendering process next month to update the voter rolls - a process that their earlier estimates suggested could take up to 16 months to complete.
"The goal is to prolong as much as possible," Jose Endundo, the leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Party (PDC), said after the announcement. Opposition parties also want the voter list overhauled to include an estimated 7 million new voters, but say the process should only take up to seven months.
Corneille Nangaa, the president of the election commission (CENI), told Reuters that the government had earmarked $200 million for the updating process though he declined to be drawn on the impact on the timing of the vote.
"The constitutional timeline ... depends on certain prior actions," he told reporters earlier after a meeting with the interior minister and foreign diplomats. "The priority right now is the revision of the voter list." The vote has to take place this year, according to the constitution.
He said that CENI would open bidding on Feb. 10 for the contract to provide equipment for the revision of voter lists. Another $100 million had been set aside for other purposes, he added.
Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated father in 2001 and won disputed elections in 2006 and 2011, called last November for a national dialogue to address financial and logistical obstacles to the holding of a slate of local, provincial and national elections, whose cost the CENI originally estimated at over $1 billion.
Most of Congo's major opposition parties have vowed to boycott the dialogue, which they say is a stalling tactic, and have called for mass demonstrations on Feb. 16 to pressure Kabila to step down this year.
In a document distributed to diplomats earlier this month, the CENI said it would take between 13 and 16 months to revise voter lists at a cost of between $120 million and $290 million.
(Reporting By Aaron Ross; Editing by Joe Bavier and Andrew Heavens)