Armed with new constitution, Congo leader in hurry for re-election

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Brazzaville (AFP) - Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso said Tuesday he wants a presidential election to be held several months early, after a new constitution removed age and term limits obstructing his bid to extend his rule.

Under the controversial new charter adopted after a referendum in October, an election was due to be held in the Republic of Congo next July, but he said he wanted to bring it forward to the first quarter of 2016 to usher in a "new dynamic" following the referendum.

"Speeding up Congo's march on the path of its development is a concern for all," he said, adding that he had instructed the interior ministry to draft legislation to bring the vote forward.

The former Marxist soldier, now 71, has so far not actually announced his intention to run for re-election.

He was president from 1979 to 1992, when Congo was a one-party state, and has since served two consecutive seven-year mandates.

The former French colony's constitutional court last month said a whopping 94 percent of voters had backed changing the constitution to scrap a 70-year age limit on presidential candidates and lift a ban on presidents serving more than two terms.

But critics dubbed the referendum a "constitutional coup", with the FROCAD opposition coalition slamming the vote as "neither free, nor just, nor fair, nor transparent".

And Congo was rocked by protests in the run-up to the vote, with at least four people killed in clashes between opposition demonstrators and security forces.

Opponents to the new constitution rallied under the cry "Sassoufit", a pun on the French expression "ca suffit" which means "that's enough".

On Tuesday, Honore Sayi, a lawmaker of the opposition Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS), doubted whether the presidential vote could be "objective" and "transparent".

He also lashed out at the idea of an accelerated schedule, asking "Will we have all the latitude we need to campaign, and with what means?"

The new constitution divides powers between the president as head of state and a prime minister as head of government -- two functions that had previously been combined in the presidency.

Although the new constitution took effect on November 5 in the oil-rich former French colony, new laws will be required to bring some institutions in line with it.

Sassou Nguesso went into opposition in 1992 after losing multi-party elections but returned to power at the end of a brief but bloody civil war in 1997 in which his rebel forces ousted president Pascal Lissouba.

He was elected president in 2002, then again in 2009, when he won nearly 79 percent of the votes. Half of his 12 rivals boycotted the most recent election.

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