Jean-Pierre Bemba has been banned from running in the Democratic Republic of Congo‘s presidential election later this year by the country’s electoral commission.
Bemba, a former vice president, was considered one of the top opposition contenders since returning to the country in August after he was acquitted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
However, an appeal in another case about interfering with witnesses is still pending. The electoral commission called that synonymous with corruption – DRC law prevents people convicted of corruption from running for president.
The announcement came late on Friday as the electoral commission issued a list of eligible candidates for the long-delayed December 23 polls.
Bemba can appeal the decision and the final list of candidates is expected next month.
“His team is likely to go through the motions to at least try to launch that appeal, but it is extremely unlikely that this will result in anything productive from [their] viewpoint,” Harry Verhoeven, a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, told Al Jazeera.
“What it is most likely to happen is that Bemba and his supporters will take to the streets, and will seek to find other ways to shape these elections – perhaps even to boycott it – and of course to try to appeal for international support,” he added.
President Joseph Kabila, whose second term officially ended in 2016 and is constitutionally ineligible to run in the upcoming election, has said he will step down to make way for a new leader.
However, Kabila has chosen a candidate for a recently formed coalition, prompting concerns from the opposition that he will continue to assert his influence on the country’s politics.
Meanwhile, Bemba’s return to politics came after nearly a decade spent in custody in The Hague after being convicted of war crimes committed by an armed group under his command in the neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002 and 2003.
Movement for the Liberation of Congo forces were sent to the CAR to put down a coup attempt, where they carried out the mass rape of hundreds of women, as well as lootings and killings of civilians.
Since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, the DRC has never had a peaceful transition of power. Concerns have been raised by rights groups over repression before December’s vote.
DRC authorities recently blocked Moise Katumbi, another top opposition contender from entering the country to register as a candidate.
Five major opposition parties, including those fronted by Bemba and Katumbi, said they were in talks with the largest opposition party to put forward a joint candidate.
Kabila’s chosen candidate for the new Common Front for Congo coalition, former Interior Minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, is one of nine DRC officials sanctioned by the European Union last year for obstructing the electoral process and related human rights violations.
In June, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that government security forces have used repression, violence and corruption over the past three years to extend their hold on power.
The government has blamed the election delay on the difficulties of organising a vote in the country and accused HRW of “bias”.
The United States has urged the DRC electoral commission to “take all steps necessary” to guarantee a free and fair vote and are among several countries to have objected to the planned use of electronic voting machines, which watchdogs warn could damage the transparency and credibility of the election.