Flares are launched by Congo police forces during a demonstration in Goma on Sept. 19. (Mustafa Mulopwe/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

IN THIS season of democracy’s retreat, Congo appears to be sliding further downhill. After a wave of repression, the regime of President Joseph Kabila is facing crunch time. Mr. Kabila’s second term is approaching its constitutionally mandated end on Dec. 19, and he is desperately looking for a way to stay in power.

Just three months before that deadline, the electoral commission was due last week to begin the process of setting up elections. Instead, the commission asked the constitutional court for permission to delay, saying that it cannot update the voter rolls before next July. The commission’s request triggered protests Monday. Opposition figures said more than 50 people were killed by security forces in the disturbances, but the official death toll was 17. Three opposition parties had their headquarters set ablaze after the protests.

The demonstrations are a foreboding signal that more instability is likely if Mr. Kabila continues to drag his feet. Not since the vast country won independence from Belgium in 1960 has there been a peaceful, democratic transition of power, and the present course looks no more promising. Mr. Kabila took over when his father was assassinated in 2001.

Mr. Kabila called for a “national dialogue” to look ahead, but the main opposition parties boycotted the talks, seeing them as another excuse for Mr. Kabila to postpone his departure. Time is already short and it may be impossible to update the voter rolls to include many new, younger voters who have come of age since the last election. If that is the case, then it would be wise to figure out some kind of democratic process in which Mr. Kabila leaves on time and a transitional leader is put in place until a new president can be chosen in an election, as some have suggested. But the chances of this happening now seem slim.

Human Rights Watch notes that since January 2015, government officials and security forces have arbitrarily arrested activists and opposition leaders, repeatedly banned opposition demonstrations, prevented opposition leaders from moving freely, fired tear gas and live bullets at peaceful protesters, and closed down media outlets, of which at least seven remain blocked. Nine activists were released from prison between Aug. 27 and Sept. 5, but charges against most of them have not been dropped, and many others remain behind bars, including about a dozen pro-democracy youth activists who were arrested in Kinshasa last week.

All of this and Mr. Kabila’s foot-dragging must compel the United States, Europe and the United Nations to speak up and not wait for further violence and chaos. Kinshasa needs to hear loud and clear that further sanctions will be imposed on people who violate human rights and trample democracy. The window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Mr. Kabila is certainly weighing his options and taking note that other African leaders have treated democracy as a trifle. A last effort must be made to forestall the making of another dictator for life.