By Aaron Ross
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Protests that blocked a reform which could have extended Congo President Joseph Kabila's rule have exposed deep rifts in his ruling coalition and galvanized opposition, increasing the chance of further unrest ahead of elections due next year.
Kabila took power in Democratic Republic of Congo in 2001 following the assassination of his father, and won disputed elections in 2006 and 2011 in Africa's largest copper producer. But he is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
A government bill to require a national census before the vote, which the opposition said would have delayed it by years, led to four days of street protests last week, in which rights groups said more than 40 people were killed by security forces.
With Western powers and the influential Catholic Church calling for the reform to be scrapped, legislators bowed to public pressure at the weekend and abandoned the census requirement in a dramatic climbdown.
With constitutional term limits looming for several presidents in the region, not least in neighboring Congo Republic, the outcome of the crisis is being closely watched across the continent.
Kabila has refused to comment on his intentions, saying it is a distraction from his political agenda.
For Philippe Biyoya, politics professor at the University of Kinshasa, the most significant outcome of the showdown was the gaping divisions exposed within the president's governing coalition.
Kabila's majority has been rocked in recent months by high-profile defections, including the popular governor of his home province, copper-rich Katanga, and Jean Claude Muyambo, head of a party which withdrew from Kabila's coalition and was arrested in Kinshasa last week as he helped organize demonstrations.
Several current members of coalition parties spoke out against the census provision following the protests. The Senate, which typically aligns with the government, voted unanimously to remove the measure after the unrest.
"[The rifts] are almost irreparable ... The damage is too great. They won't ever again be together," Biyoya said of the coalition of Kabila's People's Party for Reconstruction and Democracy and a number of smaller parties.
South African-based economic research group NKC said the blocking of the provision could signal the "start of scheming and backstabbing" among Kabila's allies who think that he will step down in 2016 and may seek to succeed him.
"And the public mood continues to simmer with rage against the president," it said. "We think there will be more trouble when the intentions of Mr Kabila and his possible successors become clearer."
The withdrawal of the census provision also marked a major triumph for opposition parties that have struggled to present a cohesive front against the government or mobilize large numbers in the streets. And it came without the presence of veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi who has been in Europe for health treatment since August.
"This is the first time that you've seen popular pressure in the streets of Kinshasa have a dramatic impact on policy," said Jason Stearns, a Congo analyst at the Rift Valley Institute.
"The question of Kabila's term limits is turning out to be something that a broad swathe of Congolese opinion can rally against regardless of political affiliation, regardless of ethnic belonging."
Significantly, the opposition's calls for street demonstrations were given a huge boost by student protesters at the University of Kinshasa, where hundreds clashed on campus with police and members of the military's elite Republic Guard.
While students played a significant role in an uprising in Burkina Faso that toppled President Blaise Compaore in October when he tried to scrap constitutional term limits, last week marked the first major student protests against Kabila in years.
Opposition leaders, however, are wary of complacency, insisting that the president and his inner circle remain committed to clinging to power.
Opposition spokesmen say the law still contains several problematic provisions that might delay the election, including what they say is the ambiguous phrasing of parts that could be used to justify holding a census before any ballot. The final text of the law has not yet been made public.
They also question whether Congo has the financial and technical capacity to hold the full slate of elections, from local to national, due in the next 19 months.
At the 2006 and 2011 elections, the 22,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission played a significant role in helping to organize the ballot.
The election commission has yet to publish a calendar for 2016 elections despite repeated calls from the opposition and international donors to do so.
While the protests did reveal deep popular anger at Kabila and his government, Pascal Kambale, former Congo country director for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, said it did little to point to who might be capable of leading the fragmented opposition to election victory.
"I don't see this as being massive support for the opposition. Not yet, from the perspective of 2016. I think it's more of a massive opposition to Kabila staying in power."
(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Pravin Char)