Tshisekedi wins DR Congo presidential election

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Democratic Republic of Congo’s electoral commission declared opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi winner of last month’s chaotic presidential election with the runner-up dismissing the outcome as an “electoral coup”.

The result sets the stage for Congo’s first democratic transfer of power, but also a tense political stand-off with the potential for violence that followed contested polls in 2006 and 2011.

Vote tallies by Congo’s Catholic Church (CENCO) showed second-placed opposition candidate Martin Fayulu as victor, according to two diplomats briefed on the findings.

Tshisekedi won with 38.57% of more than 18 million ballots cast, Corneille Nangaa, president of the election commission (CENI), told a news conference that seemed timed to avoid any immediate reaction in the streets.

“Felix Tshisekedi Tshilombo is declared the provisionally elected president of Democratic Republic of Congo,” Nangaa said, to cheers and gasps inside CENI headquarters.

In the Kinshasa neighbourhood Limete where Tshisekedi lives, thousands danced in the streets in celebration and cars slowed down and honked their horns.

Some chanted Congo had “turned the page” on the Kabila era, which began in 1997 when Joseph Kabila’s father, Laurent, led a rebellion that overthrew long-time leader Mobutu Sese Seko. Joseph took over in 2001 when Laurent was assassinated.

“For a ruler to pass power to an opponent is rare and it gives hope for the rest of Africa,” said John, a Kinshasa school teacher who declined to give his full name.

“We now want change with this new power. Poverty, insecurity, killings, we must finish with all this.”

Speaking to cheering supporters at campaign headquarters, Tshisekedi paid his respects to outgoing President Kabila, who he called “an important political partner” and promised to rule for all Congo’s 80 million people.

“I will not be the president of a political organisation … I will not be the president of a tribe … I will be the president of all Congolese,” he said.

If Tshisekedi’s victory is confirmed in the next 10 days by the constitutional court, he will become the first leader to take power at the ballot box since Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was toppled in a coup less than three months after independence in 1960 and killed four months later.

Opposition fears authorities would rig the vote in favour of Kabila’s hand-picked candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, did not materialise as Shadary finished a distant third to Tshisekedi and Fayulu, with about 4.4 million votes.

The result will fuel suspicion among Fayulu supporters that Tshisekedi, shown by pre-election opinion polls to be running well behind Fayulu, struck a power-sharing pact with Kabila.

Tshisekedi’s camp acknowledged contact with Kabila’s representatives since the vote but said they were aimed at ensuring a peaceful transition and denied any deal.

In an interview with Radio France Internationale, Fayulu, who was backed by prominent foes of Kabila, said the vote was an “electoral coup”.

“The results have nothing to do with the truth of the ballot box,” he told RFI and called on observers of the December 30 vote to publish the real results.

CONTESTATION

Tshisekedi is the son of Etienne Tshisekedi, who led opposition to three successive presidents over 35 years. Felix’s profile rose when his father died in 2017 after helping negotiate Kabila’s reluctant departure.

Kabila initially refused to step down when his mandate ended in 2016. In an interview last month, he did not rule out running again for president in 2023.

Losing candidates can contest Tshisekedi’s victory before Congo’s constitutional court, which has 10 days to hear and rule on challenges.

Any widespread perception the election was stolen could set off a destabilising cycle of unrest, particularly in the eastern borderlands where Fayulu enjoys strong support.

The Catholic Church’s bishops conference said last week it knew the identity of the winner and demanded CENI publish accurate results. The Church did not say who it thought the winner was, but briefed diplomats on its conclusions. CENCO was not immediately available for comment after the results.

The vote was initially delayed by a week in part because of a fire that destroyed ballot papers. Authorities cancelled voting on Election Day for more than a million people, saying the vote could not go ahead because of an Ebola outbreak and militia violence.

Observers said many polling stations opened late and closed early and in some places voting machines malfunctioned.