KINSHASA, Congo — Congo's former Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba, a top opposition figure, said Saturday he will appeal after the electoral commission rejected him as a presidential candidate in December's long-delayed election because of a pending case at the International Criminal Court.
President Joseph Kabila after almost two years of speculation and unrest has said he will step aside but chose a candidate for a recently formed coalition, and the opposition worries he will continue to assert his influence even as one of Africa's most turbulent nations faces what could be its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power.
Bemba became a surprise presidential contender after ICC appeals judges in June acquitted him of war crimes committed by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo forces in neighboring Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003. He returned to Congo early this month after more than a decade away and registered as a candidate the next day.
Congo's electoral commission, however, pointed out that another case is pending in which Bemba was convicted of interfering with witnesses, calling that synonymous with corruption. Congolese law prevents people convicted of corruption from running for the presidency.
On Saturday evening, Bemba said he would appeal the decision in the constitutional court and asked supporters to stay calm and wait for the result. Six major opposition parties had been discussing a possible joint candidate and "it was likely that I would be the candidate, that's why the electoral commission made this decision," he said in a statement.
The secretary-general of his MLC party, Eve Bazaiba, said on social media that the fear of Bemba's candidacy "has made Kabila tremble to the point of using the electoral commission to dismiss it."
The final list of candidates is expected on Sept. 19. Five other candidates were rejected, including three former prime ministers.
Opposition candidates ahead of the electoral commission's announcement issued a joint statement urging Kabila and his supporters to "liberate the electoral process" and stop directing the commission to reject candidates.
Congolese authorities recently blocked another top opposition contender, Moise Katumbi, from entering the country to register as a candidate. "These invalidations are unacceptable," Katumbi said early Saturday on Twitter.
Felix Tshisekedi, the candidate for Congo's largest opposition party, remains eligible to run.
The opposition is up against Kabila's chosen candidate, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary with the new Common Front for Congo coalition. He is among nine Congolese sanctioned by the European Union last year for obstructing the electoral process and related human rights violations.
The 47-year-old Kabila became president in 2001 after the assassination of his father, former President Laurent Kabila, and by law cannot run again after his mandate ended in December 2016.
The United States was among those praising Kabila's decision to step aside but it warned that Congo's electoral commission must "take all steps necessary" to guarantee a free and fair vote.
Congo's government has blamed the election delay on the difficulties of organizing a vote in the vast country. The opposition and some in the international community, including the United States, are objecting to the planned use of electronic voting machines despite warnings from watchdog groups that transparency and credibility could suffer.
In response, Congo's government has declared it will fund the election itself.
Whoever wins the Dec. 23 vote takes over a vast country with trillions of dollars' worth of mineral wealth but with dozens of armed groups battling for a part of it. Millions of Congolese have been displaced by various internal conflicts.