Congo opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi has won the presidential election, the electoral commission announced early Thursday, as the vast country braced for possible protests over alleged rigging.
Tshisekedi, who received more than 7 million votes or 38 percent, had not been widely considered the leading candidate. Some observers have suggested that President Joseph Kabila’s government sought to make a deal as hopes faded for a win for ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. Shadary received more than 4 million votes or 23 percent.
It is not immediately clear whether opposition candidate Martin Fayulu, who led in polling and warned against manipulation, will contest the results. The constitutional court has 14 days to validate them. Fayulu received more than 6 million votes or 38 percent.
Tshisekedi, son of late opposition icon Etienne yet relatively unknown, has achieved what his father pursued for decades.
The delayed results come after international pressure to announce an outcome that reflected the will of the people. The United States threatened sanctions against officials who rigged the vote. Election observers had reported numerous irregularities.
Kabila has ruled since 2001 in the troubled nation rich in the minerals key to smartphones around the world. This could be Congo’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960.
Observers before dawn waited to see how Congolese would respond, especially after Fayulu this week warned that the results were “not negotiable” amid speculation of a possible deal. Kabila has amassed vast wealth and is expected to protect it. Fayulu has pledged to clean up the country’s widespread corruption.
Activist groups on Wednesday urged people to “be ready to massively take to the streets” if results didn’t match “the truth of the ballot boxes.”
Attention turns to Congo’s powerful Catholic church, which has said its 40,000 election observers at all polling stations found a “clear winner” but was barred by electoral regulations from saying more.
If the church found Fayulu won, “how will population react?” Stephanie Wolters, analyst with the Institute for Security Studies, posted on Twitter ahead of the announcement. She added, will the African Union “consider a power transfer ‘enough’ or will they push for investigation and real result?”
The largely peaceful election was marred by the malfunctioning of many voting machines that Congo used for the first time. Dozens of polling centers opened hours late as materials went missing. And in a last-minute decision, some 1 million of the country’s 40 million voters were barred from participating, with the electoral commission blaming a deadly Ebola virus outbreak.
Defiantly, tens of thousands of voters in one of the barred communities held their own ballot on election day. Fayulu won easily.
Congo’s government cut internet service the day after the vote to prevent speculation on social media. As the electoral commission met this week, anti-riot police moved into place outside.
Some Congolese weary of Kabila’s long rule, two turbulent years of election delays and years of conflict that killed millions of people said they simply wanted peace. “As long as Fayulu or Tshisekedi wins, it will be fine,” some said, recalling the violence that followed past disputed elections.
Many Congolese objected to Kabila’s preferred successor, Shadary, suspecting that Kabila would continue to rule from behind the scenes.
Now Congo faces a new leader who is little known after spending many years in Belgium and living in the shadow of his outspoken father.
On Wednesday afternoon, hours before results were announced, some Tshisekedi supporters began to celebrate at his Union for Democracy and Social Progress party headquarters, with calendars already printed saying “Felix Tshisekedi president.”
The 56-year-old Tshisekedi took over as head of Congo’s most prominent opposition party in early 2018, a year after his father’s death. He briefly joined other opposition leaders in a coalition backing Fayulu late last year but left to join forces with the party backing Vital Kamerhe, who finished third in the 2011 election.
Some Congolese have said Tshisekedi lost support by splitting the opposition. He was less visible in campaigning than Fayulu and did not make himself available to reporters after the vote. As he cast his ballot, he accused Congo’s government of deliberately creating a mess to spark a court challenge that could allow Kabila to extend his time in power.
“I deplore all the disorder,” Tshisekedi said.