Felix Tshisekedi, the leader of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s main opposition party, has been declared the surprise winner of the 30 December presidential election in the vast central African country.
The result, announced early on Thursday, means the first electoral transfer of power in 59 years of independence in the DRC.
It will come as a shock to many observers who believed authorities would ensure that the government candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, would be the victor in the polls, the third since the end of a bloody civil war in 2002.
In addition, pre-election polls had given outspoken opposition frontrunner Martin Fayulu, a respected former business executive, a healthy lead.
Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, one of outgoing president Joseph Kabila’s top advisers, said he accepted the loss on Thursday. “Of course we are not happy as our candidate [Shadary] lost, but the Congolese people have chosen and democracy has triumphed,” Kikaya told Reuters.
Tshisekedi paid his respects to Kabila, whom he described as “an important partner … in democratic transition in our country”.
Speaking to thousands of cheering supporters in the capital Kinshasa, Tshisekedi said he would be the president “of all Congolese”.
Polls had put Fayulu on 47%, at least 20 points ahead of Tshisekedi. Vote tallies compiled by the DRC’s Catholic church found Fayulu clearly won the election, two diplomats told Reuters, raising the spectre of protests that many fear could lead to violence.
Fayulu’s supporters feared Kabila would rig the vote in favour of his hand-picked candidate, or do a power-sharing deal with Tshisekedi, head of the DRC’s main opposition party.
Fayulu immediately rejected the result. “Where did the extra seven million votes come from [for Tshisekedi’s victory]? In 2019, we refuse that the victory of the people be stolen once more,” he said.
Riot police were deployed outside the offices of the DRC’s election commission and elsewhere in the capital, Kinshasa.
Antonio Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, said he “takes note” of the announcement and urged all parties to “refrain from violence and … to channel any electoral disputes through the established institutional mechanisms.”
The opposition was weakened by internal arguments and the exclusion by the electoral commission of two political heavyweights: Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former warlord, and Moïse Katumbi, a popular tycoon.
Tshisekedi’s father, Etienne, was a famous opposition leader under Mobutu. He died last year and his son has inherited his party, and with it a chance of winning power.
Critics say Tshisekedi, 55, is unproven, inexperienced and lacks the charisma of his father.
“His father was a man of the country. The son is very limited,” Valentin Mubake, a former secretary-general of Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress said.
Already delayed by two years, the announcement of results was postponed by a further week to allow more time to overcome logistical challenges in a country of 80 million inhabitants spread over an area the size of western Europe with almost no paved roads.
Kabila’s second electoral mandate expired in 2016 and he only reluctantly called new elections under pressure from regional powers. The constitution forbade him from standing again and critics claimed he hoped to rule through Shadary, who has no political base of his own.
The Roman Catholic church is a powerful institution in this devout country, and in a joint declaration with a group of Protestant churches and election observer mission Symocel, the Catholic bishops’ conference called for calm and demanded that the DRC’s election board, CENI, publish “only results that come from the ballot box”.
Domestic election observers say they witnessed serious irregularities on election day and during vote tallying, although a regional observer mission said the election went “relatively well”.
Kabila, 47, has ruled since the 2001 assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, who overthrew long-serving dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.
Tshisekedi will be the first leader to takes power via the ballot box in the DRC since prime minister Patrice Lumumba shortly after the DRC won its independence from Belgium in 1960. Lumumba was toppled in a coup and killed four months later.
The DRC suffers from widespread corruption, continuing conflict, endemic disease, and some of the world’s highest levels of sexual violence and malnutrition. It is also rich in minerals, including those crucial to the world’s smartphones and electric cars.