Glass half full, glass half empty in Africa's latest electoral showdown

Saturday January 12 2019

Felix Tshisekedi

Leader of the DR Congo's Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party Felix Tshisekedi. He was declared president. PHOTO | NMG 

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Two candidates claim to have won, some domestic electoral observers cry foul, and government digs in and claims a victory of sorts.

In some respects, a familiar African tale: With electoral competition suffering from government capture of state institutions and winner-takes-all politics.

But a year ago, amid repeated delays, few thought we would get to the elections at all. President Joseph Kabila’s decision not to stand for a third term in office, taken in August last year under pressure from his African peers, remains a major milestone for the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Further, the December 30 vote, which took place in relative calm, will usher in a new president, and someone from the opposition at that.

The latest chapter in Congo’s electoral drama opened five days after the vote when the Catholic Church announced that according to its calculations one clear winner had emerged. Like other observers, it was legally barred against naming who it thought had won, and it still hasn’t done so. But a name soon leaked out: that of opposition leader Martin Fayulu.

The Church’s declaration was intended as a broadside, to warn the Electoral Commission of naming the government candidate Emmanuel Shadary winner despite his low share of the vote. But on January 10, the Commission finally announced Felix Tshisekedi, the other main opposition candidate, the winner.


The Church, while declaring this is an historic transition of power, has claimed that the Electoral Commission’s result is at odds with its own data.

The other major domestic electoral observation mission, a civil society coalition known as Symocel has seemingly accepted the result, also calling it a historic transition. Both observation missions have called on the Commission to publish a detailed breakdown of votes that can then be compared with the Church’s findings.

But time is tight for legal recourse and while Fayulu has declared his intention to mount one, he may lack sufficient data of his own with which to challenge the Electoral Commission’s result. The Church seems reluctant to release its data and may have gone as far as it intends in challenging the official result.

Few trust the courts to deliver a verdict that would counter the Electoral Commission. To overturn the result, Fayulu would probably have to mobilise protests on the streets and international support for his position.

While many Congolese may have concerns that Tshisekedi has made a deal with the Kabila regime, others are encouraged by the sight of an opposition member winning office, and for the moment major cities are relatively calm.

International opinion has been worryingly split since the Church’s initial declaration of January 4. Some, in particular Western countries have built their position on the Church’s findings, while others see them as insufficient to challenge the official result.

An initial statement by French Foreign Minister Le Drian was critical of the Electoral Commission’s conclusions. But as the Church has not produced a smoking gun, further international reactions have been more cautious.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, urged regional and international interested parties to refrain from speculation and Moussa Faki, head of the African Union Commission on January 10 called on the opposition to pursue their grievances through legal channels.

As things stand, Fayulu has little recourse and a Tshisekedi presidency is now likely. Some will see this as a least bad outcome — a new face with the potential for change. But the consensus the country so badly needs is lacking.

Tshisekedi will come to power contested by a major opposition coalition amid concerns that he has struck deals with the outgoing president and his entourage. Kabila will be Senator and head of his political party, which according to preliminary results has scored well at provincial level and may also do so in the national parliament. He is thus likely to maintain considerable power.

The existence of these two centres of power, seemingly tied for now by a deal to allow Tshisekedi into office, raises the possibility of power struggles in the future: Tshisekedi will have to draw on the authority of presidential office and on international support.

The situation also raises the risk of violence in the longer term as leaders of armed groups in the east of the country may exploit the new government’s lack of legitimacy to re-mobilise their combatants.

If Tshisekedi is confirmed, he will have to tread carefully around the embedded interests of those currently in office. He will also have to repair bridges with Fayulu and his backers. In this careful balancing act, he will also have to respond to the hopes for a better future that brought many Congolese to the polls.

Richard Moncrieff is the International Crisis Group’s Central Africa project director.