KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Congo opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi has been declared the winner of the long-delayed, disorganized and controversial presidential election, in an announcement by the electoral commission early Thursday that surprised many, as the vast country braced for possible protests over alleged rigging.
Tshisekedi, who received more than 7 million votes, or 38 percent according to the electoral commission's results, had not been widely considered the leading candidate and is relatively untested. The son of late opposition leader Etienne, who pursued Congo's presidency for many years, he startled Congolese shortly before the election by breaking away from an opposition effort to unite behind a single candidate.
Tshisekedi's victory was quickly contested by opposition leader Martin Fayulu, who charged the results were rigged.
Fayulu denounced the results as an "electoral hold up" that were "rigged, fabricated and invented" and do "not reflect the truth of the ballots." Speaking to the press shortly after the results were announced, Fayulu called on the Congolese people to "rise as one man to protect victory."
Fayulu, who vowed in his campaign to to clean up Congo's widespread corruption, received more than 6 million votes, or 34 percent, of the electoral commission's results. He claims that he won a majority of the votes and that he was deprived of victory because a deal was made with Tshisekedi.
"How long are we going to negotiate results?" said Fayulu. "In 2006, Jean-Pierre Bemba's victory was stolen, in 2011 Étienne Tshisekedi's victory was stolen. In 2018 victory won't be stolen from Martin Fayulu."
Fayulu urged the Catholic Church to release the results from its team of 40,000 observers who recorded voting tallies posted at each of the polling centers. Last week, the Catholic Church said their observations showed a clear winner, and many say that was Fayulu.
Several diplomats briefed on the matter told The Associated Press that the figures compiled by the Catholic Church showed that Fayulu won an absolute majority of the votes. Two diplomats also said that all major observation missions, including from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, showed similar results with Fayulu the winner. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Some observers suggested that President Joseph Kabila's government made a deal with Tshisekedi to declare him the winner, as hopes faded for ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who received just 23 percent of the official results.
The constitutional court has 14 days to validate them.
The election may enable Congo to achieve its 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.
Tshisekedi's supporters wasted no time in celebrating.
"This is the coronation of a lifetime," the deputy secretary-general of Tshisekedi's party, Rubens Mikindo, said shortly after the announcement that his candidate had won, above the cheers at party headquarters. "This is the beginning of national reconciliation."
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.
Attention now turns to Congo's powerful Catholic church and whether it will dispute the official results.
If the church found Fayulu won, "how will population react?" Stephanie Wolters, analyst with the Institute for Security Studies, posted on Twitter ahead of the announcement. She added, will the African Union "consider a power transfer 'enough' or will they push for investigation and real result?"
The delayed results came 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.
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. As the electoral commission met this week, anti-riot police moved into place outside.
Some Congolese weary of Kabila's 18-year 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.
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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