Congolese police officers hold back members of the media as Congo opposition candidate Martin Fayulu leaves the constitutional court in Kinshasa, Congo, on Jan. 12. (Jerome Delay/AP)

On Dec. 30, 2018, the Congolese people cast their votes to choose the successor to President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power since 2001. If successful, these elections would be the first democratic transition of power since the country gained independence from the Belgian government in 1960.

In the early morning of Jan. 9, Congo’s Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) declared the winner to be Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). This outcome surprised many. In particular, the Catholic Church’s National Episcopal Conference (CENCO), which had deployed 40,000 election observers, said that the result did not correspond to the data they had gathered. CENCO’s data predicted Martin Fayulu, leader of the opposition Lamuka coalition, to be the winner. Here’s the background you need to understand what’s going on.

Ending Joseph Kabila’s presidency

These elections formally ended Joseph Kabila’s almost 18-year presidency.

Joseph Kabila succeeded his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who had led the rebellion against long-term dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in the first Congo War from 1996 to 1997. Shortly after he had replaced Mobutu, the elder Kabila faced another rebellion by two main rebel groups, the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) and the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC). This heralded the Second Congo War from 1998 to 2003. When Laurent-Désiré Kabila was assassinated in 2001, his son came to power.

In 2003, the Global and Inclusive Agreement formally ended the armed conflict at the national level, although violence has continued in the east of the country until today. The conflict parties decided on a power-sharing deal with a transitional government in which Joseph Kabila remained president with four vice presidents, who represented RCD, MLC, Kabila’s faction and the unarmed opposition.

Kabila won the first multi-party elections in 2006 against Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the MLC. Despite violent clashes between the two factions and accusations of fraud, the elections were widely considered as important milestone after the transitional period. Most international observers judged them to be relatively free and fair.

That wasn’t the case in the 2011 elections, in which Kabila’s main competitor was long-term opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi, father of Felix Tshisekedi and founder of the UDPS. When Kabila was declared winner, the political opposition contested the results and several international observers voiced concerns about their regularity.

Key players in the current elections

The current elections were originally scheduled for November 2016, as Kabila’s second term formally ended in December 2016. However, the CENI postponed them twice, leading to accusations that Kabila was using stalling tactics to stay in power beyond his constitutionally regular terms.

The balloting finally took place in December 2018. Two political opinion polls published by the Congo Research Group a few days ahead of the elections showed that the ruling party’s candidate, former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, had fallen behind the other candidates, suggesting there would indeed be a transfer of power to an opposition candidate.

In the polls, opposition candidate Martin Fayulu came in significantly ahead — and was widely expected to win. Born in Kinshasa and educated in France and the U.S., he worked for ExxonMobil from 1984 to 2003, ending his tenure there as managing director in Ethiopia. He was elected to parliament in 2006 and 2011. Having been at the forefront of demonstrations against Kabila’s effort to hang on to power, seven opposition leaders, including Tshisekedi, elected him as their joint candidate in a meeting held in Geneva on Nov. 11.

Nevertheless, Tshisekedi announced on Nov. 23 that that he would run for president himself on a joint ticket with Vital Kamerhe, leader of the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC), who would become prime minister if successful. Tshisekedi had become UDPS’s national secretary for external relations in 2008. He won a seat in parliament in the 2011 elections, but he refused it, saying that the polls had been flawed. He also previously declined a position as rapporteur with the CENI, stating that he was not prepared to put his political career on hold, as the role would have required.

Having Tshisekedi win is the best possible scenario for Kabila, since his party’s candidate, Shadary, was highly unlikely to be elected. Analysts say that Kabila and Tshisekedi may have struck a deal that would leave Kabila with influence over the government even though being formally replaced as president.

Fayulu has challenged the election’s results at the Constitutional Court. In a U.N. Security Council meeting, several Western governments have asked the CENI for election data. And the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has called for the votes to be recounted.

How will this affect violence in the east?

The electoral process has tested the patience of the Congolese people. Despite intimidations, obstacles to voting, and brutal repression, they have shown a commitment to democracy. A change in power in Kinshasa will not resolve the armed conflict in the east of the country. However, the causes and dynamics of violence are not exclusively local, but are linked with national aspects of good governance. While elections are certainly no panacea, those governance issues cannot be resolved unless addressed by an accountable and legitimate government in a way that complements local peace-building initiatives.

Sara Hellmüller (@SaraHellmuller) is a senior researcher at swisspeace, post-doctoral fellow at the University of Montreal, lecturer at the University of Basel, and author of “Partners for Peace” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018).