For most of his life, Felix Tshisekedi lived in the shadow of his father Etienne, a firebrand veteran opposition leader in and out of prison and government over the course of a near 60-year career until his death in 2017.
After being declared winner of Democratic Republic of Congo’s presidential election on Thursday, the younger Tshisekedi looks set to achieve the lifetime goal that eluded his father.
“I will be the president of all Congolese,” Tshisekedi told supporters, many of who scaled the walls of party headquarters and climbed trees outside to catch a glimpse of him.
His declared win comes riddled with questions about his authority. Supporters of other main opposition candidate say the vote was rigged after Tshisekedi reached a backroom deal to share power with outgoing President Joseph Kabila.
Congo’s Catholic Church, which deployed 40,000 election monitors for the December 30 poll, concluded runner-up Martin Fayulu was the clear winner, according to three diplomats briefed on the bishops’findings.
Tshisekedi’s camp denies the deal with Kabila and says talks since the election with Kabila’s representatives were aimed at ensuring a peaceful handover of power.
The election will mark Congo’s first transfer of power at the ballot box since independence from Belgium in 1960 after decades of coups, dictatorship, assassinations and civil wars.
Suspicions surrounding Tshisekedi’s win raise doubt about whether he can fend off new unrest “” at least four people were reported killed in demonstrations by Fayulu supporters in the west “” and whether he will have the authority to make good on campaign pledges to fight corruption.
“If Tshiekedi’s made a deal, that will mean the army and intelligence agency are still controlled by Kabila,” said Stephanie Wolters, head of the Peace and Security Research Programme at Pretoria’s Institute for Security Studies.
“It would narrow Tshisekedi’s margin for manoeuvre on important governance issues and there’s no question it would diminish his credibility.”
The electoral commission’s announcement capped a swift rise for a perso who, until recently, was a peripheral figure in Congolese politics. One of five children, Tshisekedi (55) grew up in Kinshasa in the early years of Mobutu Sese Seko’s rule over the country he rechristened Zaire.
Tshisekedi’s father served in Mobutu’s government before breaking ranks and founding the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), Zaire’s first organised opposition, in 1982.
The UDPS endured harsh repression and the elder Tshisekedi was repeatedly jailed. Felix moved with his mother and siblings to Belgium in 1985 where he worked at odd jobs.
He was a member of the UDPS toiling in relative obscurity until 2011, when he won a seat in the national parliament in an election which saw his father finish as runner-up to Kabila. The party said the result was rigged.
As the elder Tshisekedi’s health declined and he spent long periods in Europe for treatment, Felix boosted his profile, touring Congo’s interior in 2014.
He met resistance in the party, with members criticising Kabila for inheriting the presidency from his assassinated father in 2001. Some accused Felix and his mother of treating the party like a family heirloom.
Leading party members were alarmed in 2015 when Felix met with Kabila’s representatives to negotiate a transition period for Kabila to stay in power once his official mandate expired at the end of 2016.
Etienne’s death in February 2017, just after the party agreed to let Kabila stay in office an extra year following protests, catapulted Felix to the forefront of political opposition.
His genial manner and striking likeness to his father – from his portly physique to the trademark flat cap – helped win over many UDPS rank and file.
Some long-time party members privately grumble Felix does not measure up to Etienne, whose body is in a Brussels morgue for two years because government feared its repatriation to Congo would lead to demonstrations.
“Felix is not his father,” said a UDPS insider who declined to be identified. “Etienne Tshisekedi never took power because he never wanted to compromise on truth and justice.”
In November, he agreed to back Fayulu in the presidential poll to give the opposition the best chance to defeat Kabila’s hand-picked candidate. Twenty-four hours later he withdrew saying his base demanded he stand.
Having led one opinion poll in October he slipped in two other polls just before the election to more than 20 points behind Fayulu supported by several influential opposition leaders.
If his victory is confirmed and he is sworn in later this month, he will face major challenges, ranging from 13 million Congolese in need of food aid to concern doubts about his legitimacy could embolden militias in the east.
His supporters are confident he can turn the tide.
“I like Felix Tshisekedi because he incarnates change,” said party member Tresor. “He is going to make us forget the years of suffering under Kabila.”