Congolese people hold their breath, waiting for the Constitutional Court of the Democratic Republic of Congo to examine the appeal that Martin Fayulu has filed last Saturday against the results of the December 2018 presidential vote that invested Felix Tshisekedi. The observers of the local Catholic Church have reported irregularities, and concerns are mounting about a possible deal between the winner of the presidential race and the outgoing President Joseph Kabila. The uncertainty regarding who will actually rule Congo aside, the first peaceful transfer of power since independence represents a milestone in the country’s political development, anyway.
On December 30 2018, the citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo went to the polls to elect a new president. This was a long-waited moment, which represented the end of the rule of the long-serving incumbent Joseph Kabila. Kabila came to power in 2001, after his father Laurent-Desiré Kabila, the leader of the rebel-forces that overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, was assassinated. Elected in 2006, Kabila secured another term in controversial elections in 2011, which expired in 2016. However, he has remained in office since then, formally as a consequence of the lack of resources to update the voter registry and organize an election.
The mounting domestic and international pressure eventually forced Kabila to step down, after 18 years of uninterrupted rule. The confirmation of the leader’s genuine intention to leave office only arrived in August, when Kabila announced that a former ministry of the interior and hard-core loyalist, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, would have represented the ruling Front Commun pour le Congo in the upcoming elections. Without a following of his own and under EU sanctions for his involvement in alleged human rights abuses, Shadary was nonetheless seen as the likeliest winner of the presidential race. Two political “heavyweights” had been excluded from the contest – Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former warlord, and Moïse Katumbi, a popular tycoon. Moreover, the opposition front failed to unite around a single candidate. The two main challengers were Martin Fayulu and Felix Tshisekedi. Tshisekedi is the candidate of the largest opposition party, the Union pour la Democratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS), and in 2017 inherited the party leadership from his late father, the long-time opponent Etienne Tshisekedi, who stood against Mobutu and both Kabilas. On the other hand, Fayulu is a respected former business executive in the oil sector and an MP since 2006. Back in November, Tshisekedi agreed to back Fayulu’s candidacy, but then he reneged and formed a coalition with Vital Kamerhe, a former ally of Kabila.
The voting was initially scheduled for December 23. However, a few days before that date, a fire destroyed election materials in a depot in Kinshasa, in mysterious circumstances, leading the electoral commission (CENI, Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante), to delay the election for one week. Some additional ten days were necessary for the results to be published. They were worth the wait, anyway. Quite surprisingly, Thursday 10 January 2019, Tshisekedi was declared winner with 38.6% of the vote, outdistancing Fayulu of about 4 points, whereas Shadary ranked third having obtained only 23.8% of the ballots. Turnout was 47%, but we should consider that citizens in two regions (about 4% of the electorate) will vote in March due to insecurity and the recent Ebola outbreak.
The result is surprising for at least two reasons. As anticipated, despite his relatively low profile, few expected Kabila’s preferred candidate to perform so poorly at the polls. However, even fewer would have expected Tshisekedi to outperform Fayulu, especially considering the pre-election surveys. The reactions were immediate. Fayulu cried foul, denouncing “an electoral coup”. Protests sparked in some cities of the northern and eastern regions, with eighteen reported deaths. Several international partners – including France, Belgium, Germany, UK and USA – expressed concerns because of the government’s decision to deny accreditation to several external electoral observers and media. However, the most severe challenge came from the influential CENCO (Commission Épiscopale Nationale du Congo), which declared that the announced results do not match with its own data. The 40,000 observers that Congo’s Catholic Church deployed on polling day reported irregularities in 38% of the monitored polling stations, such as missing materials, hundreds of boxes that were not sealed before counting, and improper verifications of voters’ identity. Another domestic observer mission, SYMOCEL, witnessed irregularities, including physical tampering with results, in about half of the 101 monitored vote-counting centres (out of 179 total such centres).
The Constitutional Court is currently examining Fayulu’s appeal. Hence, we can only speculate about what has actually happened and who will rule the country. Assuming that the vote was to some extent rigged, as it seems, it is hard to imagine fraud to be committed unbeknown to Kabila, who has packed the main state institutions with loyalists, and who has made no secret of his continuing political ambitions. Hence, why did his endorsed candidate Shadary not win? The explanation suggested by some analysts (Stephanie Wolters, Institute for Security Studies; Adeline Van Houtte, the Economist Intelligence Unit) refers to an occurred change in Kabila’s strategy to maintain influence over politics in Congo. Shadary’s electoral performance was probably too bad to be “improved” ex post in a decisive way. Easing the victory of Tshisekedi could thus be thought of as a second-best option. Tshisekedi, who has not the intransigence of his father and is unexperienced, should represent a more manageable political leader than Fayulu, who is backed by two of Kabila’s biggest adversaries – the excluded Katumbi and Bemba. On his part, Kabila could exert his influence on the new president from several positions, as either prime minister, president of senate, or president of the party with the majority in the legislative assembly. Several pieces of evidence support a similar interpretation, including the fact that Fayulu’s campaign suffered significantly more harassment than Tshisekedi’s, and the delay in the announcement of results. Most importantly, when the announcement was finally made, Tshisekedi was quick in paying his respect to Kabila, described as “an important partner in democratic change in our country”, whereas Kabila’s spokesmen conceded defeat and cheered for the triumph of Congolese people’ will.
However, the significance of these elections should not be downplayed. Many predicted that Kabila’s overstaying in office would have eventually turned into a third term, as several of his neighbours have recently done. Yet it hasn’t, and an opposition candidate will likely seat in the presidential chair, thus confirming the binding power of electoral rules and how difficult deviations from the path they set could be. The new president will inherit a host of crises, from Ebola to protracted regional conflicts, that continue to plague this mineral-rich but otherwise poor central African state.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)