NAIROBI — Congo’s electoral commission declared Felix Tshisekedi the winner of a contentious presidential election in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, setting the stage for the country’s first democratic transfer of power, despite delays, irregularities and evidence of fraud.
He will replace Joseph Kabila, who has been president for the past 18 years. Tshisekedi represents Congo’s oldest political party, founded by his father, which has spent decades in the opposition.
Kabila’s handpicked candidate to be his successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, drew the least number of votes of the leading candidates.
A second opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, came in second despite consistently polling as the favorite. Just before the announcement of the results, Fayulu, a former Exxon employee turned parliamentarian, said in a message that a power-sharing deal between Tshisekedi and Shadary had become an “open secret.”
“My response is simple: The Congolese people deserve the truth of the ballot, not another backroom arrangement,” he said. Fayulu and other losing candidates are legally entitled to appeal the results to a constitutional court.
Pressure had mounted on the electoral commission to release results after a delay in their announcement cast suspicion over the vote’s integrity. Few observer missions were accredited to monitor the vote, and the largest, led by the Catholic Church, repeatedly called for results that corresponded with tallies posted outside polling booths.
That observer mission, known as CENCO, with around 40,000 observers, is particularly influential because nearly half of Congo is Catholic. It reported that 38 percent of polling stations it observed were missing materials at the start of election day, and that in hundreds of cases, ballot boxes were not sealed before counting and polling stations did not properly verify voters’ identities.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether CENCO would publish contrasting results.
A separate domestic observer mission called SYMOCEL said it witnessed 52 major irregularities, including physical tampering with results, in the 101 vote-counting centers it monitored. There were 179 such compilation centers across Congo.
The election presented Congolese voters with a rare and deeply desired shot at change through the ballot box. But its contentiousness also raised the specter of political violence, which has accompanied all of Congo’s past elections.
Internet and text-messaging services have been shut down around the country since the day after the election, ostensibly to prevent the sharing of fake results.
The vote was also complicated by an ongoing Ebola outbreak in the eastern province of North Kivu, which is now the second-largest such outbreak ever. The electoral commission cited it in postponing voting in the cities of Beni and Butembo, effectively barring more than a million people from the presidential vote in areas that were expected to heavily back Fayulu.
Congo is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country by land area and has some of the world’s richest mineral deposits. Around 80 percent of the world’s cobalt — an essential component of batteries for cellphones and electric cars — comes from mines in its eastern regions. Those same regions have been scarred by decades of near-constant insurrection, and dozens of ragtag armed groups still operate there. Despite the country’s natural wealth, most Congolese live in poverty, without access to electricity or clean water.
Disputed elections in 2006 and 2011 ignited clashes that claimed hundreds of lives in Kinshasa, the capital, and in the east, and there are fears that state security forces and armed groups will use this election as a pretense for more violence. In the past, insecurity in Congo has rippled across its borders, sending millions fleeing east into Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. Millions more are thought to be displaced within Congo.
Kabila inherited the presidency from his father, Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in January 2001, only three years after he overthrew longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in a bloody cross-country campaign. Congo gained independence in 1960 from the Belgians, who exploited Congo’s resources and enslaved its people for almost a century.
Kabila agreed to step down in August, having delayed 2016’s scheduled elections because of countrywide unrest. He is now two years beyond his constitutionally mandated term limit. Since August, Congo’s political landscape has been rife with suspicion that Kabila would use his power to either install Shadary or find another way to pull the strings of the next government. In an interview with The Washington Post last month, Kabila refused to rule out a return to power in the next round of elections.
Tshisekedi’s win, even with the alleged power-sharing deal, would come as a surprise. Polling showed Fayulu with double-digit leads over Tshisekedi and Shadary, and he was backed by two of Congo’s most influential political figures — both of whom were banned from their own presidential candidacies on technicalities but command massive followings.
As the announcement of results loomed, though, it became clearer and clearer that Tshisekedi, who had refused to be part of a united opposition under Fayulu’s candidacy, believed he could leverage Shadary’s weak popularity and assure himself the presidency.
“This was also both Tshisekedi and Shadary’s only way out. Fayulu’s popularity was shooting up. We’re now going into a great unknown,” said Francesca Bomboko, whose Office of Studies for Research and International Consulting co-conducted the most credible pre-election opinion polling.
“Fayulu will probably take this to court, but his supporters will go to the streets. The power of the crowd is what the winners should be afraid of,” she added.
Over the past week, the U.S. government, the leaders of regional power brokers South Africa and Zambia, Pope Francis and numerous Congolese civil rights groups all urged the electoral commission to publish accurate results or face consequences.
The United States has positioned 80 troops on standby in nearby Gabon to evacuate American citizens should widespread violence erupt in the coming days. On Wednesday afternoon, however, the State Department advised Americans to leave Congo and said they should not rely on the government for evacuation.