A sur­prise win in Congo vote

A lit­tle-known can­di­date is elected pres­i­dent. Ob­servers ques­tion the re­sults.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - As­so­ci­ated press

Congo — Congo ap­peared to be choos­ing sta­bil­ity over cred­i­bil­ity in or­der to achieve its first peace­ful trans­fer of power.

On Thursday, op­po­si­tion can­di­date Felix Tshisekedi was de­clared the sur­prise vic­tor in the De­cem­ber pres­i­den­tial elec­tion de­spite clear signs that a ri­val op­po­si­tion leader ac­tu­ally won in a land­slide.

With no ma­jor protests in the cap­i­tal and lim­ited vi­o­lence else­where in the vast Cen­tral African coun­try, the pop­u­la­tion seemed to be ac­cept­ing Tshisekedi’s win and the end to Pres­i­dent Joseph Ka­bila’s long and tur­bu­lent rule.

But a court chal­lenge to the re­sults could spin the coun­try into chaos, ob­servers warned.

The in­flu­en­tial Catholic Church, which de­ployed 40,000 ob­servers at polling sta­tions, said of­fi­cial re­sults did not match its find­ings, and diplo­mats briefed on them said that ri­val op­po­si­tion can­di­date Martin Fayulu won eas­ily.

Fayulu al­leges that Ka­bila en­gi­neered a back­room deal with the largely untested Tshisekedi to pro­tect his power base in a coun­try with abun­dant min­eral wealth. An out­spo­ken cam­paigner against Congo’s wide­spread graft — it ranked 161th among 180 coun­tries in Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional’s lat­est in­dex — Fayulu de­nounced the of­fi­cial re­sults as “rob­bery.”

He called on peo­ple to “rise as one man to pro­tect vic­tory.”

As night fell, scores of po­lice with au­to­matic ri­fles and tear gas launch­ers were po­si­tioned along a road in Kin­shasa, the cap­i­tal, lead­ing to the Kingabwa neigh­bor­hood, a Fayulu strong­hold. One ve­hi­cle was filled with mil­i­tary per­son­nel in com­bat gear.

The Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo’s pop­u­la­tion of 80 mil­lion re­mained largely calm. Some protest vi­o­lence was re­ported in the city of Kik­wit, a Fayulu strong­hold, where po­lice said three peo­ple were killed. Po­lice also con­firmed “ag­i­ta­tions” in Congo’s third-largest city, Kisan­gani, but said they were quickly brought un­der con­trol.

It was not im­me­di­ately clear whether Fayulu would chal­lenge the elec­tion re­sults in court. Can­di­dates have two days af­ter the an­nounce­ment to file chal­lenges and the con­sti­tu­tional court has seven days to con­sider them be­fore re­sults are fi­nal.

Care­ful state­ments by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity did not con­grat­u­late Tshisekedi, merely tak­ing note of of­fi­cial re­sults and urg­ing peace and sta­bil­ity in a coun­try with lit­tle of it. Ob­servers ap­peared to be watch­ing for the re­ac­tions of Fayulu’s sup­port­ers.

Two diplo­mats said all ma­jor elec­tion ob­ser­va­tion mis­sions, in­clud­ing those of the African Union and the South­ern African Devel­op­ment Com­mu­nity, showed sim­i­lar re­sults to those of the Catholic Church. The diplo­mats spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to speak to the news me­dia.

The lit­tle-known Tshisekedi, who was listed in of­fi­cial re­sults as re­ceiv­ing 38% of the vote, had long been in the shadow of his fa­ther, the late op­po­si­tion leader Eti­enne Tshisekedi. Felix Tshisekedi star­tled Congo last year by break­ing away from the op­po­si­tion’s unity can­di­date, Fayulu, to stand on his own.

Fayulu, a for­mer Exxon Mo­bil man­ager and Kin­shasa law­maker, re­ceived 34% of the vote in the of­fi­cial re­sults. He was a vo­cal ac­tivist dur­ing the two-year de­lay in Congo’s elec­tion, in­sist­ing it was time for Ka­bila to go.

Even be­fore the elec­tion an­nounce­ment, some ob­servers sug­gested that Ka­bila’s govern­ment might make a deal with Tshisekedi as hopes faded for ruling-party can­di­date Em­manuel Ra­mazani Shadary, who re­ceived just 23% of the vote.

Many Con­golese sus­pected Shadary would al­low Ka­bila to rule from be­hind the scenes and pro­tect his vast as­sets. Sev­eral Congo an­a­lysts said it ap­peared Ka­bila made a quiet agreeKINSHASA, ment with Tshisekedi.

“If Fayulu and his al­lies, with their own in­de­pen­dent se­cu­rity and fi­nan­cial net­works, had taken power, they would have changed the power struc­ture of Congo and defini­tively ousted Ka­bila and his clan,” said Pa­trick Smith of the news­let­ter Africa Con­fi­den­tial.

By break­ing away from the op­po­si­tion coali­tion supporting Fayulu, Tshisekedi “po­si­tioned him­self to bar­gain with the regime,” Pierre En­gle­bert, a fel­low at the At­lantic Coun­cil’s Africa Cen­ter, wrote in an anal­y­sis.

Western powers ap­peared wary. Bri­tish For­eign Sec­re­tary Jeremy Hunt said he was “very con­cerned about dis­crep­an­cies” in Congo’s re­sults, ad­ding that the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil would dis­cuss the mat­ter on Fri­day. France’s for­eign min­is­ter bluntly cast doubt on the of­fi­cial re­sults and Bel­gium’s for­eign min­is­ter ex­pressed con­cern. There was no im­me­di­ate U.S. com­ment.

The largely peace­ful elec­tion faced nu­mer­ous prob­lems as many voting ma­chines be­ing used for the first time mal­func­tioned. Dozens of polling cen­ters opened hours late as ma­te­ri­als went miss­ing. Most alarm­ing to many Con­golese, about 1 mil­lion of the coun­try’s 40 mil­lion voters were barred from par­tic­i­pat­ing al­to­gether, with the elec­toral com­mis­sion blam­ing a deadly Ebola virus out­break.

The govern­ment cut in­ter­net ser­vice the day af­ter the vote to pre­vent spec­u­la­tion about the re­sults on so­cial me­dia. On Thursday it re­mained off in parts of the coun­try, which was for­merly known as Zaire.

Some Con­golese, weary of Ka­bila’s 18-year rule, the two tur­bu­lent years of elec­tion de­lays and years of con­flict that killed mil­lions of peo­ple, said they sim­ply wanted peace. Some said they would be happy as long as Fayulu or Tshisekedi won, re­call­ing the vi­o­lence that fol­lowed past dis­puted elec­tions.

Ka­bila is barred from serv­ing three con­sec­u­tive terms, but un­til he an­nounced last year that he would step aside, many Con­golese feared he’d find a way to stay in of­fice.

Now Congo pre­pares for a new leader who is lit­tle known af­ter spend­ing many years in Bel­gium. Tshisekedi, 56, took over as head of Congo’s most prom­i­nent op­po­si­tion party in early 2018, a year af­ter his fa­ther’s death.

John Wes­sels AFP/Getty Im­ages

SUP­PORT­ERS OF Felix Tshisekedi cel­e­brate his vic­tory in Congo’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Kin­shasa. The Catholic Church, which sent 40,000 ob­servers to polling sta­tions, said of­fi­cial re­sults did not match its find­ings.

Caroline Thirion AFP/Getty Im­ages

FOR­EIGN GOVERN­MENTS did not con­grat­u­late Tshisekedi, shown with his wife, in­stead urg­ing peace and sta­bil­ity in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo.

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