Felix Tshisekedi, the son of a veteran opposition leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has taken the prize that eluded his late father for so long — the presidency. He has been declared the provisional winner of a historic election in the country.
Tshisekedi is the head of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, a party founded by his father Étienne, who spent decades as the country’s main opposition leader but died in February last year, when Tshisekedi junior took over.
Known to his friends as “Fatshi”, the 55-year-old will replace President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the DRC since 2001. Although Tshisekedi does not enjoy the same degree of popularity as his father, he has risen steadily through the party ranks.
“Étienne 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 the representative for Mbuji-Mayi, the country’s third-largest city. But he never took up his seat as he did not formally recognise his father’s 2011 election defeat by Kabila.
A month after his father’s death, Tshisekedi was elected as party head.
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.
The DRC has never known a peaceful transition of power since independence from Belgium in 1960, and this election has been watched closely for any sign that the country could be thrust further into political chaos.
Tshisekedi has pledged to work closely with Kabila. “Today we should no longer see him as an adversary but rather as a partner for democratic change in our country,” he told supporters.
But the result was immediately denounced by his opposition rival, Martin Fayulu, the runner-up, who declared the announcement “an electoral coup”. Tshisekedi attends the same Pentecostal church as Fayulu in Kinshasa.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the outcome was “not consistent” with the results because Fayulu appeared to have won.
The United Nations has warned against any resort to violence. “The secretary general calls on all stakeholders to refrain from violence and to channel any eventual electoral disputes through the established institutional mechanisms,” UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said late on Wednesday.
Kabila was due to step down two years ago, but managed to cling on to power, sparking an escalating political crisis marked by widespread protests, which were brutally repressed, leaving dozens of people dead. And the long-delayed election has heightened fears that any outcome would not be perceived as free and fair.
The vote finally took place in late December, pitting Kabila’s handpicked successor Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary against Tshisekedi and Fayulu, a fiery orator who emerged from relative obscurity to take a front seat in the race.
Election chief Corneille Nangaa declared Tshisekedi the winner with 38.57% of the vote, just ahead of Fayulu with 34.8%. Shadaray came third with 23.8%.
The announcement of an opposition win was a shock because many had expected the results to be stacked in Shadary’s favour, prompting heavy international pressure on Kinshasa to respect the wishes of the electorate while the mammoth ballot count was under way.
But the outcome was swiftly denounced by Fayulu as a sham. “These results have nothing to do with the truth at the ballot box,” he told Radio France International. “It’s a real electoral coup; it’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s an ugly scam by Nangaa and his political cronies. They have stolen the Congolese people’s victory and the people will never accept that.”
Le Drian supported his claim and referred to a parallel count done by the DRC’s powerful Catholic Church. He said the results were at odds with those of the church, which deployed more than 40 000 people to observe the vote.
Last week, Cenco, the body that represents the country’s Catholic bishops, said it knew the outcome of the vote and urged the electoral commission to publish the results “in keeping with truth and justice”. Although it did not name the winner, its announcement drew a sharp rebuke from the ruling coalition.
Analysts described Tshisekedi’s win as “highly surprising”, but said it made sense in the context of DRC’s political dynamics.
“Kabila did not want to risk announcing Shadary as the winner, which would have triggered violent protests and international condemnation. Instead, he chose to split the opposition by creating a power-sharing deal with Tshisekedi,” said Robert Besseling, executive director of risk consultancy EXX Africa.
“Kabila will be able to influence Tshisekedi, who now owes his ascendancy to power to Kabila’s control of the electoral commission.”
He also said the result was “starkly at odds” with Cenco’s parallel vote tabulation and, in a country of 80-million, where half the population are Catholic, Cenco’s assessment that the outcome was rigged was likely to be widely accepted.
Before the results were announced, police were deployed throughout Kinshasa, where residents went home early for two days, fearful of unrest.
The independent electoral commission is expected to release detailed results on January 15 and the new president will be sworn in three days later.
The past two elections, in 2006 and 2011, both of which were won by Kabila, were marred by bloodshed and many fear a repeat of the violence if there is a belief that the result has been fixed. — AFP