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Congo leader boosts influence with new constitutional court judges

* Judges’ appointments is victory for president

* Predecessor had sought to retain sway over court

* Rivalry within coalition could deepen political paralysis

KINSHASA, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Three constitutional court judges selected by Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi were sworn in on Wednesday after months of delay, granting him greater influence over lawmaking and election issues and riling his coalition partner.

The appointments mark a major victory for Tshisekedi over his long-serving predecessor Joseph Kabila, who has sought to maintain sway over the nine-judge court since leaving power in 2019. Each man now has four judges likely to back him, analysts said.

Tshisekedi and Kabila formed a coalition government following Democratic Republic of Congo’s disputed 2018 election, but their partnership has soured.

The swearing in of the judges by parliament could deepen their rift, the analysts said, potentially damaging efforts to solve Congo’s many security and economic problems and attract investment in its copper, cobalt and gold mines, oil fields and vast forests.

Tshisekedi flashed a smile and a v-sign for victory on entering parliament on Wednesday for a ceremony delayed by months of debate over the legality of the appointments.

“I acknowledge your swearing in and congratulate you,” he told the judges after they took their oaths.

Kabila’s FCC political alliance, which controls the senate and national assembly, said the appointments were unconstitutional and boycotted the ceremony.

It argues that Tshisekedi made space on the court by forcing out one judge before the end of his term and promoting two others to another court against their will, charges the president denies.

“The appointments and replacements of the judges concerned ... are null and of no effect,” the FCC said in a statement on Tuesday.

Greater control of the court could shield the president from impeachment and strengthen his hand when fighting off political challenges from the FCC-controlled legislature.

It could also increase political tensions, although there is no sign yet of a total breakdown in the Tshisekedi-Kabila relationship. Some analysts say it is in both parties’ interest to keep their alliance afloat ahead of the 2023 presidential elections.

“Immediately it creates more paralysis and we will get short term tensions between the parties,” said Vincent Rouget, an analyst from London-based security consultancy Control Risks.

Civil society groups have spoken out against political appointments in the judiciary, regardless of who is in charge. Some said they had hoped the age of overwhelming presidential influence was on the wane when Kabila’s 18-year rule ended.

“Replacing judges under the orders of Kabila by judges under the orders of Tshisekedi does not advance the rule of law,” LUCHA, a youth activist group, said on Twitter. (Reporting by Stanis Bujakera and Hereward Holland Writing by Hereward Holland Editing by Edward McAllister and Philippa Fletcher)

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