Congo’s electoral commission on Thursday declared opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi the surprise winner of last month’s presidential election, a result that sets the stage for the country’s first democratic transfer of power.
The outcome of the disorganized and contentious Dec. 30 poll is being contested by another opposition leader, Martin Fayulu. Vote tallies by Congo’s Catholic Church showed Fayulu as victor, according to two diplomats briefed on the findings.
Tshisekedi won with 38.57 percent of the more than 18 million ballots cast, Corneille Nangaa, the president of the election commission, known as CENI, told a news conference at about 3 a.m., which appeared 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 a mixture of cheers and gasps inside CENI headquarters.
In the Kinshasa neighborhood of Limete where Tshisekedi lives, thousands of people danced in the streets in celebration and cars slowed down and honked their horns.
Some chanted that Congo had “turned the page” on the Kabila era, which began in 1997 when Joseph Kabila’s father, Laurent, led a rebellion that overthrew longtime leader Mobutu Sese Seko. Joseph took over in 2001 when Laurent was assassinated.
Fayulu dismissed the official results as “a true electoral coup.”
“The results have nothing to do with the truth of the ballot box,” he said in an interview with Radio France Internationale, and called on observers of the Dec. 30 vote to publish the real results.
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, who was toppled in a coup less than three months after independence in 1960 and killed four months later.
Opposition fears that authorities would rig the vote in favor of Kabila’s hand-picked candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, did not materialize as Shadary finished a distant third to Tshisekedi and Fayulu, with about 4.4 million votes.
However, the result, which observers said was marred by a spate of irregularities, is certain to fuel further suspicion among Fayulu’s supporters that Tshisekedi, shown by the last opinion polls before the election to be running well behind Fayulu, struck a power-sharing pact with Kabila.
Fayulu was backed by two prominent foes of Kabila, both of whom were barred from standing in the election. Kabila referred to one of them, ex-provincial Gov. Moise Katumbi, as “Judas” in a recent interview with local media.
Tshisekedi’s camp has acknowledged contacts since the vote with Kabila’s representatives but said they were aimed at ensuring a peaceful transition and denied there had been any kind of deal.
Losing candidates can contest Tshisekedi’s victory before Congo’s constitutional court, which has 10 days to hear and rule on any challenges.
Any widespread perception the election has been stolen could set off a destabilizing cycle of unrest, particularly in the volatile eastern borderlands where Fayulu enjoyed some of his strongest support.
The Catholic Church’s bishops conference said last week that it knew the identity of the winner and demanded that CENI publish accurate results. The Church did not say who it thought the winner was, but briefed diplomats on its conclusions.
Authorities canceled voting on election day for more than 1 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.
Tshisekedi is the son of the legendary Etienne Tshisekedi, who led the opposition to three successive presidents over 35 years. Felix’s profile rose after his father died in 2017, soon after negotiating the terms of a transition period when Kabila refused to step down at the official end of his mandate the previous year.
His father founded the country’s oldest and largest opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress and went on to spend decades as the country’s main opposition leader but died in February last year — with Tshisekedi junior taking over.
Known to his friends as “Fatshi,” the portly 55-year-old is set to replace President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the volatile, poverty-stricken nation with an iron fist since 2001.
A father of five, Tshisekedi goes to the same Pentecostal church as Fayulu in Kinshasa, the capital.
Although Tshisekedi does not enjoy the same degree of popularity as his father, he has risen steadily through the party ranks.
“Etienne was stubborn and proud,” said one keen observer of the country’s opposition. “Felix is more diplomatic, more conciliatory, more ready to listen to others.”
In 2008 he became national secretary for external relations and was elected to the national assembly in 2011 as representative for Mbuji-Mayi, the country’s third city.
However, he never took up his seat as he did not formally recognize his father’s 2011 election defeat to Kabila.
A month after his father’s death, Tshisekedi was elected party chief.
Although he holds a Belgian diploma in marketing and communication, his opponents point out that he has never held high office or had managerial experience. And some detractors have even suggested his diploma is not valid.
After announcing his bid to run for the presidency, Tshisekedi promised a return to the rule of law, to fight the “gangrene” of corruption and to bring peace to the east of the country.