Catholics in DR Congo, where the Church has long played a dominant role, are hoping Pope Francis will urge clean and fair polls when he visits next week.
Campaigning is already gearing up for a presidential vote in December, a period that is often fraught with violent protests and accusations of fraud after decades of strongman rule.
The Church has often acted as a counterweight to government in the mineral-rich but poor Central African nation, where an estimated 40 percent of its 100 million people are Catholic.
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Since DR Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960, Catholicism has maintained a “moral ascendancy”, said political scientist Christian Moleka.
“It remains a kind of recourse for the major issues of national interest,” he told AFP.
In more recent years the Church has fielded election monitors and used its influence to press elected officials to respect constitutional term limits.
The presidential vote, when Felix Tshisekedi will stand for a second term after his disputed election in 2018, is likely to loom large over Francis’ four-day visit.
Bishop Donatien Nshole, secretary general of the Catholic Church’s National Episcopal Conference of Congo, recently told news media that having Francis weigh in publicly on the need for credible elections would be welcome.
“The pope will surely say a word to encourage the political actors to organise the elections properly,” said Adolphine Mulanga, a 21-year-old student in Kinshasa.
– ‘Unavoidable partner’ –
Priests and Catholic groups were key backers of the figures who secured DR Congo’s independence, forging lasting ties between Church and state that endured despite the secular constitution established by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1974.
Many Congolese considered it the unofficial opposition during Mobutu’s rule, when clergy often intervened to try to build consensus in times of civil war or other crises.
Towards the end of Mobutu’s reign in the 1990s, Laurent Monsengwo, then the archbishop of Kisangani, was instrumental in the negotiations that led to a multi-party political system.
The Church also chaired the electoral commission during the first democratic presidential election in 2006, which cemented Joseph Kabila’s ascent to power.
Catholic leaders were also quick to support the protesters challenging Kabila’s 2016 move to extend his term by delaying scheduled elections.
Relations with the current Congolese presidency have been tense, with the Church among the groups that raised doubts about the validity of the 2018 vote won by Tshisekedi.
But Moleka said the Church remained an “unavoidable partner” of the government while trying to restrain authoritarian impulses in a country with weak institutions.
“The state is obliged to take this partner into account, even if its positions sometimes frustrate its interests,” Moleka said.
For many in Kinshasa, Francis could make the most impact by issuing a firm declaration on the importance of free elections, instead of offering any specific political guidance.
A Catholic seminarian in the megacity of 15 million people, who asked not to be identified by name, said he doubted the pope would insist on the issue publicly.
But as sovereign of the Holy See, “he will surely discuss the issue with his counterpart”, he said.