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Congo Kicks the Can Down the Road

How a Failed Election Could Lead to a Violent Uprising

Supporters of Felix Tshisekedi react at party headquarters in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 10, 2019 Olivia Acland / REUTERS

On December 30, 2018, millions of citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo braved torrential downpours, navigated chaotic crowds, and stood in long lines to do something they had not done in seven years: vote. According to Congo’s constitution, elections were supposed to have been held in 2016, but the regime repeatedly delayed them. After a failed effort to lift presidential term limits, Congo’s leadership finally relented to mounting domestic, regional, and international pressure, agreeing last year to hold elections and endorsing a successor from the ruling coalition.

Some Congolese voters held out hope for peaceful change in a country that has been ruled for 21 years by the Kabila regime—first under Laurent-Désiré Kabila and now under his son Joseph. But many suspected that the electoral commission would rig the vote on behalf of the ruling coalition’s candidate. It came as a surprise, then, when, on January 10, the commission made the provisional announcement that someone else had won: Felix Tshisekedi, the son of a long-time opposition hero.

The outcome was quickly called into question. Leaked data from the electoral commission and from the Catholic Church, which fielded 40,000 electoral observers, indicates that the true winner was a different opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, and rumors are swirling of a backroom deal in which Kabila agreed to name Tshisekedi president, presumably in exchange for continued control over the security services and the maintenance of the Kabila family’s wealth. The regime seems to have calculated that anointing the ruling party candidate as president would have been a bridge too far in a country where the governing class is deeply unpopular, and so it settled on Tshisekedi, apparently a more accommodating opponent than Fayulu, as a fallback option.

In the short run, the announcement of an opposition victory likely averted an immediate popular uprising. But by demonstrating to Congolese that true reform is unlikely to happen through the ballot box, it has sown the seeds for deepening disorder and instability down the line.

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