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Congo’s disputed election could lead to a historic transfer of power — or violence

Independent election observers are questioning the official results.

Leader of DRC Opposition Party Felix Tshisekedi Arrives In London
Felix Tshisekedi, the opposition leader declared the winner in DRC elections, in December 2017.
Leon Neal/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has declared a surprise winner in its presidential election, a verdict that represents both promise and peril for the African nation.

Election officials in the DRC announced Thursday that opposition leader Félix Tshisekedi had won the election, which took place on December 30. But there’s widespread speculation that Tshisekedi’s victory is illegitimate.

Leaders of the Catholic Church, which deployed tens of thousands of election observers, called into question election officials’ conclusions, saying the numbers don’t add up.

Instead, many people believe that a different opposition leader, former Exxon Mobil executive Martin Fayulu, won the election outright, though the church stopped short of declaring him the victor. Fayulu has called the results an “electoral coup.”

Minor clashes have been reported in the wake of the disputed elections, including a demonstration that reportedly left at least four people dead in the western part of the country, including two police officers. But there are fears that these tensions could erupt into large-scale violence in a country that’s already besieged by conflict and battling a deadly Ebola epidemic in the east.

It also obscures what would otherwise be a remarkable outcome for the DRC: the peaceful transfer of power, the first since the country’s independence from Belgium in 1960.

Joseph Kabila, the extremely corrupt outgoing president, has been in power since 2001, when he took over after his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated. (The elder Kabila came to power in 1997, during a rebellion that unseated the longtime military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.)

Joseph Kabila was term-limited out of his presidency in 2016, but he postponed the election until 2018 so he could try to change the constitution and snag another term. But he finally relented under international pressure. After delays, and some suspicious mishaps — like when a fire destroyed 10,000 voting machines in the capital, Kinshasa, in December 2018 — elections finally began on December 30.

Kabila handpicked a crony and key ally, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, to run for president. Shadary acted as something of an enforcer for Kabila — he was sanctioned by the European Union for his role in cracking down on protesters who demonstrated against Kabila’s election delays.

The opposition and critics saw Shadary as merely a stand-in for Kabila, possibly just keeping his seat warm until he staged a comeback. They expressed fear that the election would be rigged and Shadary would win no matter what.

That, surprisingly, didn’t happen. Shadary came in third, and apparently lost so badly that there was no way to fudge the results without the risk of widespread protests and unrest.

But then came a new twist — election officials’ decision to name Tshisekedi the winner when independent observers are casting doubt on his victory. Numerous election irregularities, like that fire that destroyed voting booths, have given people more reason to doubt. That includes a last-minute decision to bar 1 million people from voting in states affected by the Ebola outbreak, a region where Fayulu campaigned heavily and was expected to receive strong support.

The opposition finally won in the DRC — but the outcome is disputed

Tshiseskedi, the candidate whom Congolese officials declared the winner, is the son of a longtime opposition leader, Étienne Tshisekedi, who stood against Mobutu and both Kabilas. Étienne Tshisekedi died in 2017, and his son took over his opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress.

Initially, Tshisekedi and others backed Fayulu — the other opposition leader who the Catholic Church and Western diplomats have suggested is the real winner — creating a united opposition against Kabila’s ruling coalition and Shadary. But then Tshisekedi blew up the deal, claiming that his supporters wanted his name on the ballot.

Tshisekedi had name recognition because of his father and has a strong base of support in Kinshasa, while Fayulu had the backing of other prominent opposition leaders in the DRC, including some wealthy patrons. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Fayulu drew big crowds, including in towns at the center of a deadly Ebola outbreak, and led pre-election opinion polls by a healthy margin.”

DRC election officials said Thursday that the election breakdown was 38.6 percent for Tshisekedi, 34.8 percent for Fayulu, and 23.8 percent for Shadary. But the Western diplomats and the Catholic Church are disputing those results.

Opponents are now accusing Kabila and Tshisekedi of making some sort of secret deal. (Kabila’s aides have denied any deal.)

These rumors were fueled by reports that Tshisekedi’s party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, had been in contact with Kabila’s ruling coalition. Tshisekedi’s rhetoric also took a surprising turn after the election, especially given the longtime animosity between Tsisekedi’s father and Kabila.

“I pay tribute to President Joseph Kabila,” Tshisekedi said Thursday. “From today we should no longer see him as an adversary but instead as a partner in the democratic change in our country.”

Fayulu, meanwhile, urged election observers on Thursday to “reveal to the Congolese people the name of the person who truly incarnated the choice of our people.” Fayulu can still sue to challenge the results in court, but some fear that the longer the dispute over the election lasts, the greater the chance that violent protests or clashes might break out.

Large-scale violence hasn’t happened, though there have been some minor clashes between supporters of the two opposition candidates. The Wall Street Journal reports that local media documented the deaths of four people, including two police officers, in a town in western DRC. Congolese officials have also cut off internet service, claiming they’re trying to block the spread of fake news.

The next week will be critical, as Kabila is expected to step down on January 18 so a new president can be sworn in. But doubts about which candidate legitimately won the right to succeed him are clouding what should be a democratic triumph for the DRC.