By Giulia Paravicini
KINSHASA (Reuters) – Supporters of Congo’s president-elect celebrated an unlikely win on Thursday, but the runner-up denounced a fix and France, Belgium and the Catholic Church all cast doubt on the results.
A chaotic vote in the vast and volatile nation of 80 million people has raised fears of renewed violence, and at least two people were killed in clashes at one town in the west.
But most parts of the country were calm.
The electoral commission (CENI) announced around 3 a.m. (0200 GMT) that opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi, 55, had won the Dec. 30 vote, edging out another opposition candidate, businessman Martin Fayulu.
Fayulu called the results an “electoral coup” engineered by outgoing President Joseph Kabila to deny him the presidency.
France said the outcome was at odds with tallies provided by observers from the Catholic Church. These showed Fayulu winning, according to three diplomats briefed on the findings.
Publicly, the church said its tally did not match official results.
Anger over the results, and particularly the Fayulu camp’s suspicions that Tshisekedi won by cutting a power-sharing deal with Kabila, could cast a cloud over what is meant to be Congo’s first democratic transfer of power in 59 years of independence.
Tshisekedi’s camp has acknowledged contact with Kabila’s representatives since the election but said they were aimed at ensuring a peaceful transition and denied a deal.
In contrast to previous polls, election officials did not provide a regional breakdown of the results.
Reaction across the country was mixed.
In the town of Kikwit, 500 km (310 miles) from the capital Kinshasa, early on Thursday, security forces opened fire after crowds attacked symbols of government. At least two people died in the melee, a local journalist and a U.N. source said.
There were celebrations in parts of Kinshasa and the south of the country, where Tshisekedi has broad support. Towns in Katanga, the eastern mining heartland, were calm.
But protests were reported in the central town of Kisangani, and Fayulu supporters vented their frustrations.
“We will never accept this nomination. It’s not a victory for Felix. CENI has appointed him,” said Georges Bingi, a member of Fayulu’s party in the eastern city of Goma.
Fayulu can appeal the results to Congo’s constitutional court but has not yet indicated whether he will. By contrast, the campaign of Kabila’s hand-picked candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who finished a distant third, conceded.
“Of course we are not happy as our candidate lost, but the Congolese people have chosen, and democracy has triumphed,” Shadary spokesman Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi told Reuters.
Tshisekedi’s win raises questions over the future of Kabila, who has governed since his father’s assassination in 2001 and overstayed the official end of his mandate by two years.
Kabila said before the vote he planned to remain involved in politics and could not rule out running again for president in 2023, when he will no longer be term-limited.
Tshisekedi inherited the leadership of the UDPS party when his father, Etienne, died in 2017. But he lacks the experience, political clout and firebrand reputation his father earned during years campaigning for democracy under three successive presidents.
No details of any deal have emerged. But in the run up to the results, Tshisekedi said Kabila had nothing to fear should he come to power, comments analysts interpreted as efforts to reassure the president and his supporters that interests accumulated over two decades in power were not at risk.
Fayulu, however, is backed by ex-rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba and former governor Moise Katumbi, two of Kabila’s fiercest rivals.
Any escalation in the Fayulu camp’s rhetoric or actions risks igniting Congo’s cycle of unrest, particularly in the volatile eastern borderlands where he enjoyed strong support and dozens of militia groups are active.
It is unclear whether voting will ever be held in parts of eastern Congo where the election was delayed – disenfranchising more than 1.2 million people – due to concerns about Ebola and violence. Tshisekedi’s margin over Fayulu was less than 700,000 votes, according to the official results.
Members of Tshisekedi’s UDPS party called the election a historic triumph in a struggle for democracy.
The inauguration was scheduled for Jan. 18.
“Today marks the liberation of the people,” said Simphora Biduaya, a candidate for provincial assembly in the east.
But French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Tshisekedi’s victory contrasted with observations in the field.
“We must have clarity on these results, which are the opposite to what we expected,” Le Drian told CNews.
Belgium said it would use its temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council to also seek clarification.
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. He was toppled in a coup less than three months after independence in 1960 and killed four months later.
(Additional reporting by Stanis Bujakera, Fiston Mahamba and Djaffa; Writing by David Lewis and Aaron Ross; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Andrew Cawthorne)