Congo president urges national dialogue before elections

By Aaron Ross KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila made a long-anticipated public call on Saturday for a national dialogue to prepare for elections next year, an idea regarded with suspicion by his opponents. A successful presidential election in 2016 would mark Congo's first-ever peaceful transition of power after decades of autocratic rule and civil conflict since independence from Belgium in 1960. In an address to the nation, Kabila announced the creation of a preparatory committee but did not specify who would serve on it, nor when the dialogue itself would begin. "I have decided on this day to convoke an inclusive national political dialogue and the subsequent implementation of a preparatory committee to address all aspects linked to its organization," Kabila said in a pre-recorded speech aired on state-run television on Saturday evening. The idea of a national dialogue has been praised by the ruling majority as crucial to ensuring that upcoming elections go smoothly but dismissed by most opponents as part of a strategy by Kabila to hang onto power beyond the end of his second and final mandate next year. Having taken power in 2001 after the assassination of his father, President Laurent Kabila, and won disputed elections in 2006 and 2011, he is barred by the constitution from standing for a third term. INTERNATIONAL MEDIATOR Congo's election commission originally scheduled more than a half-dozen local, provincial and national elections beginning in October and culminating in presidential and legislative elections on Nov. 27, 2016. But elections for local councillors and provincial deputies failed to take place last month after the constitutional court ruled that budgetary and logistical constraints had made the current calendar untenable. Kabila said that those difficulties and Congo's history of polls marred by contested results and post-election violence made an inclusive dialogue essential. "It is through a responsible consensus that we will be able to give the relaunch of our electoral process a chance," he added. Kabila also said he would accept the participation of an international mediator, a condition set by Congo's largest opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). Most of Congo's opposition parties, however, have vowed not to participate in the dialogue. They suspect that the dialogue will be used to allow Kabila to stay in power beyond 2016 by delaying elections or installing a power-sharing government. Kabila has refused to comment publicly on his political future. A spokesman says he intends to respect the constitution, although allies have recently suggested delaying elections by up to four years to clean up voter rolls. (Reporting by Aaron Ross; Editing by Emma Farge and Mark Trevelyan)