KINSHASA (Reuters) - (Corrects headline in story from Jan 12 to show bill only received initial approval from parliament)
Lawmakers loyal to Congolese President Joseph Kabila gave initial backing on Monday to a bill requiring a national census before a 2016 election, overcoming protests by opposition legislators who said the move would delay the vote by years.
By law, Kabila will not be able to stand for re-election next year and critics say the census is a strategy to prolong his time in office while avoiding the potentially tricky issue of constitutional change.
The mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo has some 65 million people spread across a nation as big as western Europe, with little infrastructure and difficult communications, making any count of people highly difficult.
The government says the census can be completed within a year and that it is required for fair and transparent elections.
Before the parliamentary vote, police in heavy body armor and gas masks fired tear gas and blocked the passage of a few hundred demonstrators as they sought to march towards the chamber, a Reuters reporter said.
Opposition members said police fired live bullets on the crowds, injuring tens of people. A police spokesperson denied this.
Inside parliament, opposition MPs shouted, blew whistles and danced in the aisles in an attempt to disrupt proceedings during the debate. Many of them then boycotted the vote.
“We refuse this debate, this farce. The moment has come to respect the constitution,” said Jean Lucien Bussa, a legislator from the Movement for the Liberation of Congo.
The proposal will now proceed to a commission before a final vote in parliament, Minaku said.
The situation in Congo is under international scrutiny in the wake of a move by Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore last year to extend his own time in office only to be toppled by mass protest rallies and forced to flee abroad.
Another rally on Sunday against the proposed change to Congo’s electoral law was also dispersed with police tear gas.
Kabila came to power in 2001 after the assassination of his father. He won elections in 2006 and 2011, though the second vote was marred by widespread allegations of fraud.
Some of his allies have called for the constitution to be revised to allow him to stand in a third election, but others, including the powerful governor of the copper-producing Katanga province, have come out against it.
Kabila himself has refused to comment on his political future.
Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Dominic Evans