Congo opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi has won the long-delayed 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 per cent, had not been widely considered the leading candidate and is relatively untested. The son of late opposition leader Etienne, who pursued the presidency for many years, he surprised many last year by breaking away from an opposition effort to unite behind a single 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, who received more than 4 million votes, or 23 per cent.
It is not immediately clear whether opposition candidate Martin Fayulu, who had vowed to clean up Congo's widespread corruption and led in polling, will contest the results. The constitutional court has 14 days to validate them. Fayulu received more than 6 million votes, or 34 per cent. This is Congo's first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960. Kabila has ruled since 2001 in the troubled nation rich in the minerals key to smartphones around the world and has amassed vast wealth. He is barred from serving three consecutive terms, but during more than two years of election delays many Congolese feared he'd find a way to stay in office.
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. 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. Many Congolese objected to 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. 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.
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.