Riot police deployed amid fears of violence over alleged vote-rigging
Felix Tshisekedi, the leader of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s main opposition party, has been declared the surprise winner of the 30 December presidential election in the vast central African country.
The result, announced early on Thursday, theoretically means the first electoral transfer of power in 59 years of independence in the DRC, but was deeply controversial because another opposition figure, Martin Fayulu, had held a healthy lead in pre-election polling.
It has also surprised some observers who believed authorities would ensure victory for the government candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who was hand-picked by outgoing president Joseph Kabila as his successor.
Official figures published by the electoral commission gave Tshisekedi 38%, four points ahead of Fayulu, even though pre-election polls had put Fayulu at least 20 points ahead of Tshisekedi.
Fayulu, a respected former business executive, immediately rejected the result, which he called an “electoral coup”.
“Where did the extra seven million votes come from [for Tshisekedi’s victory]? In 2019, we refuse that the victory of the people be stolen once more,” he said. “These results have nothing to do with the truth at the ballot box,” he told Radio France International.
Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, one of Kabila’s top advisers, said he accepted the loss. “Of course we are not happy as our candidate [Shadary] lost, but the Congolese people have chosen and democracy has triumphed,” Kikaya told Reuters.
Tshisekedi paid his respects to Kabila, whom he described as “an important partner … in democratic transition in our country”. Speaking to thousands of cheering supporters in the capital, Kinshasa, Tshisekedi said he would be the president “of all Congolese”.
Vote tallies compiled by the DRC’s Catholic church found Fayulu clearly won the election, two diplomats told Reuters, raising the spectre of protests that many fear could lead to violence.
Riot police were deployed outside the offices of the DRC’s election commission and elsewhere in Kinshasa.
Following an election itself delayed by two years, the announcement of results was postponed by a week. The government said this would allow more time to overcome logistical challenges in a country of 80 million inhabitants spread over an area the size of western Europe with almost no paved roads.
Adeline Van Houtte, research analyst for west Africa at the Economist intelligence Unit, said the delay raised suspicions that the government wanted time to negotiate a backroom deal with Tshisekedi.
“A Tshisekedi presidency would be the least bad alternative to a Shadary victory for the regime as it would put a veil of legitimacy on the electoral process and would be more manageable than a Fayulu presidency,” Van Houtte said.
Robert Besseling, executive director of risk consultancy EXX Africa, said Kabila did not want to risk announcing Shadary as the winner, which would have triggered violent protests and international condemnation.
“Instead, he chose to split the opposition by creating a power-sharing deal Tshisekedi, … Kabila will be able to influence Tshisekedi, who now owes his ascendancy to power to Kabila’s control of the electoral commission, Besseling said.
The last two elections in 2006 and 2011, both of which were won by Kabila, were marred by bloodshed. The church, a powerful institution in this devout country, will now play a key role.
An endorsement of the result by senior clerics would assure the legitimacy of the outgoing government, electoral institutions and Tshisekedi’s win. A rejection would encourage Fayulu and supporters to launch a campaign of protest that would exacerbate the DRC’s chronic instability.
The church will have to balance a commitment to transparency and accountability with the deep desire for stability among many citizens in the DRC.
If Tshisekedi’s victory is confirmed in the next 10 days by the constitutional court, he will be the first leader to takes power via the ballot box in the DRC since prime minister Patrice Lumumba shortly after the DRC won its independence from Belgium in 1960. Lumumba was toppled in a coup and killed four months later.
Kabila, 47, has ruled since the 2001 assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, who overthrew long-serving dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.
The DRC suffers from widespread corruption, continuing conflict, endemic disease, and some of the world’s highest levels of sexual violence and malnutrition. It is also rich in minerals, including those crucial to the world’s smartphones and electric cars.
Kabila’s second electoral mandate expired in 2016 and he only reluctantly called new elections under pressure from regional powers. The constitution forbade him from standing again and critics claimed he hoped to rule through Shadary, who has no political base of his own. However this meant that Shadary’s campaign never gained momentum in a country where there is deep resentment of an often incompetent and self-serving elite.
The opposition was weakened by internal arguments and the exclusion by the electoral commission of two political heavyweights: Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former warlord, and Moïse Katumbi, a popular tycoon.
Tshisekedi’s father, Etienne, was a famous opposition leader under Mobutu. He died in 2017 and his son has inherited his party. Critics say Tshisekedi, 55, is unproven, inexperienced and lacks the charisma of his father. “His father was a man of the country. The son is very limited,” Valentin Mubake, a former secretary-general of Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress told the Guardian last month.