What next for the DR Congo after the disputed election?

The controversial outcome of the December 30 election could still mark an opportunity for strengthening DRC’s democracy.

DRC election REuters
Supporters of Martin Fayulu chant slogans as he delivers his appeal contesting the results of the presidential election at the constitutional court in Kinshasa, DRC, January 12, 2019 [Reuters]

The unexpected outcome of the December 30 general election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) baffled even the most seasoned watchers of the country.

If we are to believe the provisional results announced by the Congolese National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) on January 9, opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi decisively won the presidential election with 36.6 percent of the votes. The runner up was Martin Fayulu, the leader of the Lamuka coalition, who scored 34.8 percent. And Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the presidential candidate of Joseph Kabila’s ruling Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition, came third with 23.8 percent.

However, the FCC coalition won the senatorial and legislative elections in a landslide. In other words, at least according to the CENI, the Congolese people overwhelmingly rejected Ramazani Shadary’s presidential bid, but gave the coalition supporting him a super majority in both the senate and the parliament.

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This puzzling result led most reasonable observers of the election to come to the conclusion that Tshisekedi’s unexpected win was the result of a backroom deal between Tshisekedi and the FCC coalition aiming to help Kabila maintain control over important ministries and the security services with the help of a “friendly president” in the coming years.

This is not a far-fetched scenario. As stipulated in the constitution, upon leaving the presidency, Joseph Kabila will become a senator for life and preside over the senate. We can also assume that Kabila’s coalition will most certainly maintain its control over the military, foreign affairs, homeland security, the budget, and the mining sector. If these assumptions stand, it is a foregone conclusion that the focus of Congolese political power will be shifting from the presidency to the Senate. In this context, it is reasonable to expect the FCC coalition to do anything in its power to prevent a hostile political figure from taking over the presidency. 

All this is to say that the results of the 2018 Congolese general elections are murky at best. Even if one believes that Tshisekedi had enough popular support to squarely win the presidential contest, it is hard to comprehend how Kabila’s coalition lost the presidency but won the legislative elections in a landslide.

Reports on irregularities surrounding the election process also make it hard for anyone to find the results announced last week by the CENI reliable.

On December 13, for example, 8,000 electronic voting machines were destroyed in a mysterious fire at a guarded warehouse in Congo’s capital, forcing the electoral commission to postpone the election, which was originally scheduled for December 23. Also, voters in several regions of the Congo, such as Beni, failed to participate due to the ongoing Ebola outbreak and the insecurity posed by armed groups.

Moreover, there have been several reports signalling major irregularities such as discarded ballot boxes, people who were not on the ballot miraculously winning local elections and a number of voting machines running long after the polls were supposed to close. If proven correct, these irregularities could cast further doubts on the electoral outcomes.

In light of all this, many national and international observers disputed the results of the election.

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Martin Fayulu, who came second according to the CETU but claims to be the real winner of the presidential race, appealed to the country’s Constitutional Court to cancel the provisional result. He too supports the idea that Tshisekedi was declared the winner of the election only because he made a deal with the TCC coalition.

More importantly, DRC’s powerful Catholic Church, which deployed more than 40,000 observers to monitor the elections, said it determined “the real winner” of the presidential race and strongly suggested that Tshisekedi’s win is not legitimate.

In a statement released on December 10, the church said that “the results of the presidential election published by (the electoral commission) do not match those collected by our observer mission.” 

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) also issued a statement saying the DRC should recount the votes of its contested presidential election.

“A recount would provide the necessary reassurance to both winners and losers,” the 16-member regional bloc said.

Meanwhile, France and Belgium also challenged the outcome of the presidential election, with France’s foreign minister saying the declared victory of Tshisekedi was “not consistent” with the results and that his rival Fayulu appeared to have won.

Now, with this many organisations and actors vocally disputing the results of the election, everyone is waiting to see what is going to happen next. 

Will Tshisekedi agree to take over the presidency – which, given the circumstances, will be little more than a symbolic role – or will he demand a recount? Could he call another election?

A recount is unlikely to occur and if it does, it is unlikely to produce a different result. And a repeat of the election is equally unlikely as it would cause major difficulties for the Congolese political edifice. So Tshisekedi is most likely to ignore all the controversy surrounding his victory and take over the presidency in the coming days. 

So what is Fayulu going to do? How far will he go to reclaim what he calls “his stolen victory”?

While the opposition leader’s game plan is not yet fully clear, it is becoming obvious that his Lamuka coalition will survive to fight another day. The Lamuka coalition appeared to be the biggest loser in the election, however, it is well known that this group is still a major threat to Kabila’s FCC coalition and is likely to be a stronger opposition force in parliament than Tshisekedi’s UDPS.

What will all this mean for the DRC’s democracy?

Because Kabila will be in the Senate and his coalition will most likely hold onto important government departments, if things stay as they are, Felix Tshisekedi will be the first President in the Congolese political history since the time of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba to face a serious countervailing power. This is why, even though things are undoubtedly murky and messy, we may be witnessing the genesis of political checks and balances in the Congo. If the current political tripod – the FCC, Lamuka and UDPS – are serious about securing the future of the Congolese democracy, they may transform this problematic situation into an opportunity to start laying down the foundations of a new political equilibrium. Yes, Martin Fayulu will lose; yes, Tshisekedi’s presidency will be relatively or substantially weak, but if they all play their cards right, down the road, the Congolese people may begin to win. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.