Congo’s opposition candidate, Felix Tshisekedi, has come out as the winner of the country’s presidential election, according to Congo’s electoral commission.
The result was released early Thursday in the Central African Republic after two weeks of speculation and broad allegations of election irregularities. If the result stands, this will be the country’s first democratic transition of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960.
Tshisekedi, 55, takes power from President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the resource-rich Central African country since 2001. Kabila’s preferred successor had been former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
Tension in the Congo
This election had been deemed a pivotal moment for the Congo, determining whether the beleaguered country could transition into a true democracy.
But the vote came at a difficult time for the nation — the eastern Congo is battling the country’s worst outbreak of Ebola. Violent protests erupted in the region after the Independent National Election Commission announced that voters in the cities of Beni, Butembo, and Yumbi, opposition strongholds, would not cast their ballots until March because of ‘the persistence of the Ebola disease’ and “the threat of terrorism.’
Furthermore, in the election run-up Kabila, 47, was criticized for implementing electronic voting machines in a country with sparse access to power. A fire in the capital of Kinshasa weeks before the election destroyed 80% of the city’s electronic voting machines, doing nothing to assuage concerns around voting methods.
After the vote, as Congo’s population of 80 million people waited for the highly anticipated outcome, on January 1, the internet and text messaging services were shut down to preserve public order after ‘fictitious results’ were circulated on social media, President Joseph Kabila told Reuters.
This week, riot police had been deployed in Kinshasa in anticipation of riots, and the US State Department Wednesday advised all American citizens in the country to leave.
Vote of confidence
Tshisekedi was not expected to win the election.
In the run-up to the landmark vote, speculation had mounted that Kabila would install Shadary as a placeholder president, ruling in the shadows until he could rerun for the presidency in 2023.
Now Kabila’s status in the country, which produces about two-thirds of the world’s cobalt and is estimated to sit atop half of the globe’s reserves, looks unsure.
Congo’s political path is full of unexpected outcomes.
The country’s first prime minister Patrice Lumumba was executed by firing squad in 1958, as military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko came to power in a coup.
After three decades of iron-fist rule, Mobutu was overthrown in 1997 by rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who was assassinated a few years later. Joseph Kabila inherited the presidency from his father in 2001 and has since presided over the decline of the nation.
Under the DRC’s constitution, a president can only serve for two terms. Kabila’s second term expired in 2016, meaning this election was long overdue.
Tshisekedi also comes from a storied political background. His father Etienne Tshisekedi founded the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, the oldest and largest opposition party of the Congo. Felix Tshisekedi took over the party following his father’s death in 2017.