Felix Tshisekedi gestures as he is surrounded by his wife, relatives and supporters of his UDPS party (Union for Democracy and Social Progress), a few minutes after he was declared winner of the presidential election following the announcement of the provisional results by the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), in his father's historic residence in Limete, Kinshasa on Jan 10, 2019. (CAROLINE THIRION / AFP)
KINSHASA, Cong — Congo opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi has won the long-delayed presidential election, the electoral commission announced early Thursday to the surprise of many, as the vast country braced for possible protests over alleged rigging.
I will not be the president of a political organization... I will not be the president of a tribe ... I will be the president of all Congolese
Tshisekedi, who received more than 7 million votes, or 38 percent, had not been widely considered the leading candidate and is relatively untested. The son of late opposition leader Etienne, who pursued the presidency for many years, he surprised Congolese last year by breaking away from an opposition effort to unite behind a single candidate.
Speaking to cheering supporters at his campaign headquarters, Tshisekedi paid his respects to outgoing President Joseph Kabila,whom he called "an important political partner", and promised to rule for all Congo's 80 million people.
"I will not be the president of a political organization... I will not be the president of a tribe ... I will be the president of all Congolese," he said.
If Tshisekedi's victory is confirmed in the next 10 days by the constitutional court, he will become the first leader to take power at the ballot box since Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who was toppled in a coup less than three months after independence in 1960 and killed four months later.
Some observers have suggested that Kabila's government sought to make a deal as hopes faded for a win for ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who received more than 4 million votes, or 23 percent.
'TRUE ELECTORAL COUP'
However, furious supporters of the runner-up Martin Fayulu denounced Thursday's results as a fix, while France said the outcome was at odds with what was seen on the ground.
The opposition candidate dismissed the results as "a true electoral coup".
"The results have nothing to do with the truth of the ballot box," Fayulu said in an interview with Radio France Internationale, and called on observers to publish the real results.
Vote tallies collected by Congo's Catholic church showed Fayulu winning, according to two diplomats briefed on the findings.
It was not immediately clear whether Fayulu, who had pushed hard for Kabila to leave power and vowed to clean up Congo's widespread corruption, will contest the results after leading in polling. The constitutional court has 14 days to validate them. Fayulu received more than 6 million votes, or 34 percent.
This is Congo's first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960
This is Congo's first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960. Kabila has ruled since 2001 in the troubled nation rich in the minerals key to smartphones around the world and has amassed vast wealth. He is barred from serving three consecutive terms, but during more than two years of election delays many Congolese feared he'd find a way to stay in office.
"This is the coronation of a lifetime," the deputy secretary-general of Tshisekedi's party, Rubens Mikindo, said above the cheers at party headquarters. "This is the beginning of national reconciliation."
Opposition candidate Martin Fayulu speaks to the press at his headquarters in Kinshasa, Congo, Jan 10, 2019. (JEROME DELAY / AP)
Scores of people in the capital, Kinshasa, danced after the election results were announced long after midnight, but observers waited to see how other Congolese would respond.
Fayulu, who once tweeted that "When the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn," was backed by two popular opposition figures barred from running, former Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba and former governor Moise Katumbi.
Fayulu, a former Exxon manager and Kinshasa lawmaker, accused the government of impeding his campaign by blocking flights and assaulting his supporters, which Kabila dismissed.
Congolese riot police take position around the electoral commission building at night in Kinshasa, Congo, Jan 8, 2019. (JEROME DELAY / AP)
Ahead of the election results, activist groups urged people to "be ready to massively take to the streets" if the outcome didn't match "the truth of the ballot boxes."
The largely peaceful election was marred by the malfunctioning of many voting machines that Congo used for the first time
The delayed results come after international pressure to announce an outcome that reflected the will of the people. The United States threatened sanctions against officials who rigged the vote.
The largely peaceful election was marred by the malfunctioning of many voting machines that Congo used for the first time. Dozens of polling centers opened hours late as materials went missing. And in a last-minute decision, some 1 million of the country's 40 million voters were barred from participating, with the electoral commission blaming a deadly Ebola virus outbreak.
Residents celebrate in Kinshasa, Jan 10, 2019, after learning that opposition presidential candidate Felix Tshisekedi had been declared the winner of the elections. (JEROME DELAY / AP)
Defiantly, tens of thousands of voters in one of the barred communities held their own ballot on election day. Fayulu won easily.
Congo's government cut internet service the day after the vote to prevent speculation on social media
Congo's government cut internet service the day after the vote to prevent speculation on social media. As the electoral commission met this week, anti-riot police moved into place outside.
Some Congolese weary of Kabila's long rule, 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, while recalling the violence that followed past disputed elections.
Many Congolese objected to Shadary, suspecting that Kabila would continue to rule from behind the scenes.
Now Congo faces a new leader who is little known after spending many years in Belgium and living in the shadow of his outspoken father.
Kinshasa residents celebrate in Kinshasa Jan 10, 2019, after learning that opposition presidential candidate Felix Tshisekedi had been declared the winner of the elections. (JEROME DELAY / AP)
On Wednesday afternoon, hours before results were announced, some Tshisekedi supporters began to celebrate at his Union for Democracy and Social Progress party headquarters, with calendars already printed saying "Felix Tshisekedi president."
The 56-year-old Tshisekedi took over as head of Congo's most prominent opposition party in early 2018, a year after his father's death
The 56-year-old Tshisekedi took over as head of Congo's most prominent opposition party in early 2018, a year after his father's death.
Some Congolese have said Tshisekedi lost support by splitting the opposition. He was less visible in campaigning than Fayulu and did not make himself available to reporters after the vote. As he cast his ballot, he accused Congo's government of deliberately creating a mess to spark a court challenge that could allow Kabila to extend his time in power.
"I deplore all the disorder," Tshisekedi said.
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