January 11, 2019
Claims provisional winner Tshisekedi has done deal with former ruler may be more than sour grapes
Democratic Republic of the Congo’s outgoing president Joseph Kabila casts his vote along with his family in December 2018. Photograph: Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images
By Jason Burke Africa correspondent, the Guardian
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an election is not a single decisive event, but just one part of a never-ending struggle to gain and keep power in which living to fight another day is as important as landing a knockout punch.
Of the half dozen or so major players a year ago, only two or three remain standing.
Felix Tshisekedi, named as the surprise, provisional winner of last month’s much delayed presidential vote, is the 55-year-old son of the country’s most respected opposition leader. However, he has never held high office or even a managerial role, and his Belgian professional qualifications have been questioned by opponents.
Tshisekedi is the leader of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), DRC’s oldest and largest opposition party. Critics say he is unproven, inexperienced and lacks the charisma of his father. “His father was a man of the country. The son is very limited,” Valentin Mubake, former secretary-general of Tshisekedi’s party told the Guardian last month.
In 2008, he became national secretary for external relations and was elected to the national assembly in 2011 as representative for Mbuji-Mayi, the country’s third city. However, he never took up his seat as he did not formally recognise his father Étienne’s 2011 election defeat to Joseph Kabila.
He inherited the UDPS leadership when Étienne – who spent 35 years leading the opposition but never won office – died in 2017. Tens of thousands thronged the streets when Tshisekedi visited his political stronghold of Mbuji-Mayi, a southern city, in early elections, chanting slogans calling on the father of five to save the nation.
Felix Tshisekedi (right) and his running mate Vital Kamerhe campaign in Kinshasa, November 2018. Photograph: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images
But Tshisekedi’s apparent victory is contested – not by the outgoing president, Kabila, whose own hand-picked candidate was soundly defeated, but by the opposition rival, Martin Fayulu, who came a close second.
The few reliable surveys of pre-poll voting intentions make it clear that Fayulu was the favourite by a considerable margin. The conclusions of 40,000 observers deployed by the church on the day of the election are that he won.
Fayulu, who has denounced the result as an “electoral coup”, is not a “fils de” (“son of”) like Tshisekedi and many other dynastic politicians across the continent. He is a former business executive and 30-year veteran of politics who has earned a reputation as brave, honest and effective. More importantly, perhaps, he also has the backing of political heavyweights Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moise Katumbi, both forced into effective exile overseas and unable to contend the polls.
“Fayulu came very fast from more or less nowhere to become this great people’s champion, but it is unclear if he has the big organisation and depth of support he needs now. We are about to find out,” said Ben Shepherd, an expert in the DRC at London’s Chatham House.
The real winner may be the outgoing president. Kabila, 47, took power in 2001 on the assassination of his father Laurent, and ceded only reluctantly to regional powers’ pressure to hold elections. He was banned from standing by the constitution’s two-term limit.
Kabila has made no secret of his continuing political ambitions, which is one reason why so many analysts say Fayulu’s claims that Tshisekedi has done a deal with the DRC’s former ruler may be more than sour grapes.
Many noted that Fayulu’s campaign suffered significantly more harassment than Tshisekedi’s, and that the latter’s rhetoric towards erstwhile enemies underwent a dramatic change in recent days.
Tshisekedi’s camp has acknowledged contact with Kabila’s representatives since the vote but denied there had been any deal and said talks were aimed at ensuring a peaceful transition
“This is not a bad result at all for the ruling party,” said Stephanie Wolters, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, in South Africa. “It will mean a very soft landing for Kabila. With Tshisekedi, they don’t have to give up anything. Kabila gets to walk away looking good and the elite gets to stick around.”