By Amedee Mwarabu Kiboko
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo's highest court ruled on Wednesday that President Joseph Kabila would stay in power beyond the end of his mandate if his government failed to hold an election due in November.
Kabila's opponents denounced the ruling - they had previously argued that an interim president should serve after Kabila's term expired if the election was delayed.
Kabila succeeded his assassinated father as president in 2001, then won his first election in 2006. The constitution requires that he step down in December after two five-year terms in office.
The government has said the election to choose Kabila's successor is likely to be delayed by budgetary and logistical obstacles.
"Article 70, clause two, (of the constitution) permits the president of the republic ... to remain in office until the installation of the new elected president," the constitutional court's president, Benoit Lwamba Bindu, said from the bench on Wednesday.
Opposition leaders say Kabila is trying to delay the election so he can hold on to power. He has declined to comment publicly on his intentions and called instead for a national dialogue to allow elections to take place.
Eve Bazaiba, secretary-general of the opposition Movement for the Liberation of Congo, said the court is not independent or politically neutral.
"If the court violates the constitution, we are not going to follow the court," she told Reuters. "On Dec. 19, the mandate of Kabila is over. On Dec. 20, if he continues, we will consider that there has been a constitutional coup d'etat."
Ramazani Shadari, the deputy secretary-general of Kabila's political party, said outside the courthouse that the ruling is a "victory for the people" and thanked the court.
Political tensions are high in Congo over the question of Kabila's succession. On Wednesday, police in Congo's second city, Lubumbashi fired tear gas at thousands of supporters of Moise Katumbi, a leading opposition candidate to succeed Kabila.
Katumbi, a former provincial governor and one-time Kabila ally, faced a second day of questioning over government allegations that he plotted against the republic by hiring mercenaries, including former U.S. soldiers.
The charges could send Katumbi to jail and prevent him from running. Katumbi denies the allegations, which he says are politically motivated.
Police also used tasers at the protesters and arrested at least 10, according to a Reuters witness.
(Additional reporting by Kenny Katombe in Lubumbashi and Aaron Ross in Kinshasa; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Larry King)