Opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi was announced Thursday as the surprise winner of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s presidential election — a victory that was immediately challenged by another opposition candidate and the Catholic Church.
Supporters in Kinshasa celebrated Tshisekedi’s victory, which signaled the departure of incumbent president Joseph Kabila after 18 years — and marked the first peaceful handover of power since the DRC gained independence from Belgium in 1960.
“Today I am happy,” Tshisekedi, leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, told his supporters. “Happy for you, my base. Happy for the people of Congo. Everyone is celebrating that there is peace. No one could imagine the scenario where an opposition candidate could be victorious!”
Yet within minutes of the electoral commission’s announcement, another candidate, Martin Fayulu, slammed the results as “rigged, fabricated and invented,” calling on the Congolese people to “rise as one man to protect victory.”
The announcement of the results of the Dec. 30 ballot was delayed several times. The government even shut off access to the internet, ended text messaging and closed a number of radio and TV stations to “stop the spread of fake news.”
This led to accusations that the count was being rigged, and Fayulu, leader of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development party, accused Kabila of striking a backroom deal with Tshisekedi to steal the election.
“How long are we going to negotiate results?" Fayulu said. “In 2006, Jean-Pierre Bemba's victory was stolen, in 2011 Étienne Tshisekedi's victory was stolen. In 2018 victory won't be stolen from Martin Fayulu.”
The official result handed Tshisekedi a victory with 38 percent for the vote. Fayulu landed 34 percent, while Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the candidate of Kabila’s ruling party, won just 23 percent.
Kabila accepted his candidate’s defeat. “We are not happy as our candidate lost, but the Congolese people have chosen and democracy has triumphed,” Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, a Kabile adviser, told Reuters.
However, results collated by the Catholic Church, a powerful institution in the DRC, reportedly contradict the official result, making Fayulu the clear winner. The Church had some 40,000 observers at polling stations across the country for the election.
In a statement issued on Thursday, the Conférence Épiscopale Nationale du Congo (CENCO) said “the provisional results do not correspond to the data collected from our observation mission,” TV5 Monde reported.
According to Kenneth Roth, head of the Human Rights Watch, the Catholic Church poll gave Fayulu 47 percent of the vote with Tshisekedi on 24 percent.
The Church has yet to release its results, but it did brief officials from around the world last week, with multiple news agencies and diplomats reporting that Fayulu was the winner.
“We must have clarity on these results, which are the opposite to what we expected,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told CNews, adding: “The Catholic Church of Congo did its tally and announced completely different results.”
Tshisekedi is the son of a legendary political figure in the DRC figure, and currently leads the largest opposition party. Yet he remains inexperienced in Congolese politics, having lived for many years in Belgium. He only returned to his home country when his father died in 2017.
Cover image: Democratic Republic of Congo's Union for Democracy and Social Progress party leader and presidential candidate Felix Tshisekedi waves to the crowd during a campaign rally in Kinshasa, on December 21, 2018 in the courtyard of the party headquarter. (LUIS TATO/AFP/Getty Images)