Central African Republic's constitutional court on Friday rejected changes to the constitution that would have allowed President Faustin-Archange Touadera to stay in power if an election in December is delayed due to the new coronavirus.
The government had argued the changes, which would have authorised Touadera and national lawmakers to remain in office for an amount of time to be determined by the constitutional court, were need to ensure continuity of government.
The country, still struggling to emerge from a prolonged civil war, has so far confirmed about 1,300 cases of COVID-19 and four deaths. But it has a weak health system that could easily be overrun if case numbers surge.
In its ruling, the country's highest court said the proposed changes violated constitutional provisions forbidding modifications to the president's term and providing for the speaker of parliament to take over on a three-month interim basis if an election must be delayed.
"The will of the people would be tossed aside," it said in its judgment, which also urged the president to organise consultations with political parties to reach a consensual solution.
The presidency declined immediate comment. Mathurin Djimbélé, one of the lawmakers who sponsored the proposal in parliament, said he accepted the court's judgment but accused it of shirking its responsibilities.
CAR is one of several African countries, along with Ivory Coast, Guinea and Ghana, where the pandemic has injected fresh uncertainty into presidential elections scheduled for later this year that were already expected to be bitterly contested.
Touadera was elected in 2016 in a vote that followed a civil war unleashed by the overthrow three years earlier of former President Francois Bozize.
Most of the diamond-rich country remains beyond government control as rival militias continue to clash.
Bozize returned to CAR in December after six years in exile and has said he might stand in the election.