WHAT TO KNOW
What happened? The Democratic Republic of Congo’s electoral commission declared on Thursday that Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the main opposition party, unexpectedly won the presidency with 38.6 percent of the vote. But rival Martin Fayulu, who leads another opposition party, called the result “rigged, fabricated and invented,” and the Catholic Church — which had thousands of election monitors at polling stations — claimed Fayulu actually won.
Why does it matter? The Dec. 30 election was an attempt at the first democratic transfer of power since the country gained independence from Belgium in 1960. President Joseph Kabila, whose hand-picked successor came in third, has held power for 18 years. But amid years of alleged corruption and misrule, the DRC still has a long way to go before democracy fully takes hold. Whatever happens in this political transition could be a harbinger for the country’s future.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Out with the old… Kabila first took power after his father was assassinated in 2001 and has ruled the country ever since. Elected in 2006 and again in 2011 amid claims of fraud, he should’ve left office in 2016 due to constitutional limits, but he postponed elections and tried to tweak the constitution. Kabila’s reign was marked by accusations of graft and cronyism in the impoverished nation, to the extent that he risked sparking more violence — the kind that erupted in December 2017 after he refused to step down — if he didn’t leave office.
...in with the new? Tshisekedi, known to friends as "Fatshi,” is the son of longtime opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, who died in 2017. He succeeded his father as head of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, and although he initially decided not to run — opting instead to stand behind a united opposition — Tshisekedi ultimately chose to dedicate a presidential bid to battling poverty. But some suspect his surprise win means he’s struck a power-sharing deal with Kabila, one that would likely include access to a continuing flow of riches to the ex-president and his cronies from the country’s vast mineral reserves.
Holier than thou. Because around 40 percent of Congolese citizens are Roman Catholic, and because the church runs many schools and hospitals in the country, it’s seen as a powerful moral anchor amid endemic government corruption. After all, it was this institution — the most trusted in the country — that helped broker an ultimately ill-fated deal between Kabila and opposition protesters in 2016 that envisaged his resignation. Over the past year, it has emerged as an anti-Kabila force with an interest in restoring democracy. This week, the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo (CENCO) said their tally, collected by 40,000 election observers, instead showed that Fayulu won an absolute majority. How CENCO proceeds further could well determine the country’s near-term future.
Challenge accepted. If Tshisekedi is sworn in later this month, Fayulu, a former oil magnate with a substantial political following, could raise trouble for the new government. For the election, Kabila’s authorities used an electronic voting system many believe wasn’t completely fraud-proof, and now Fayulu says he’ll take his challenge to the courts. Keeping his angry followers at bay, however, may prove difficult. Meanwhile, Belgium and France have publicly questioned the results, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also suggesting Fayulu was the real winner. Such interest from the West isn't surprising: The U.S. and Belgium helped launch the cycle of coups that long hobbled the DRC by facilitating the removal of democratically elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1960 and his execution a year later.