Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila said a presidential election in December would go ahead as planned, but declined to say if he would defy term limits and stand for re-election.
Kabila is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term but refuses publicly to rule out a run. Some allies have advanced a legal argument they say would justify his candidacy.
If Kabila does step down, it would mark Congo’s first democratic transition since independence from Belgium in 1960, after decades marked by authoritarian rule, coups and catastrophic civil wars.
The deadline for candidates is in just under three weeks. In an address to a joint session of parliament, Kabila avoided saying whether he would stand.
“The course toward the election scheduled for December is maintained,” Kabila said. He said government would finance the elections so as to avoid “blackmail” by foreign powers which criticise repeated delays to the vote.
Striking a defiant tone, he said Congo was not prepared to take lessons in democracy “from those who assassinated democracy in this country and elsewhere”, a jab at Belgium and other Western countries that backed the overthrow of independence leader Patrice Lumumba by autocrat Mobutu Sese Seko in 1961.
International pressure on Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated father in 2001, to leave office has grown since a November 2016 election was postponed. That sparked violent protests in which security forces killed dozens.
The United States and European Union sanctioned several close Kabila allies for allegedly overseeing crackdowns and obstructing the electoral process, moves Kabila denounced in his speech.
The UN Security Council and the African Union Peace and Security Council, which met in New York, “expressed concern about remaining challenges to foster greater confidence” in the electoral process.
In a joint statement, the two councils “called on all political parties, their supporters and other political actors to remain committed to the 31 December 2016 Agreement, the only viable path out of the current political situation.”
Under an accord struck on December 31 between Kabila representatives and opposition leaders, Kabila is barred from trying to change the constitution to seek a third term.
In an apparent attempt to nudge Kabila out, Congo’s parliament passed a law on Wednesday expanding financial privileges for former presidents, including a pension, housing, security, healthcare and a diplomatic passport.
Former presidents already enjoy considerable legal immunity under the constitution, which designates them senators for life.
In his speech, Kabila touted his record during 17 years in office, including stabilising inflation and unifying a country fractured by civil war. Critics say the economy benefits a narrow slice of the population while armed conflict continues to rage across much of the country.