The DRC: An unexpected transfer of power, but was it the right one?

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Africa has been holding its breath as the people of the DRC participate in a remarkable election that has featured prolonged delays, electronic voting, and a transfer of power. Or did it? Here, Rachel Strohm provides an essential primer, overview, and outlook on a fascinating period in one of the continent’s most important countries. 

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) doesn’t have a strong record of free and fair elections.  President Joseph Kabila won a competitive election in 2006, but was accused of rigging the polls to retain his office in a 2011 vote. In the most recent election in December 2018, many observers expected the same tactics would be used to ensure a victory for Kabila’s preferred replacement, Emmanuel Shadary.  

And yet, the DRC never fails to surprise.  Evidence has emerged that Kabila’s camp may have manipulated vote totals not in favor of Shadary, but of a prominent opposition candidate.  The story of Félix Tshisekedi’s unexpected victory captures the uneven progress that the DRC has made towards democracy.

Kabila 2.0: More of the same?

Joseph Kabila has long been an outsize figure on the Congolese political scene.  He became president in 2001, after the previous president, his father Laurent Kabila, was assassinated.  The younger Kabila spent the next nearly two decades consolidating his authority and building up an extensive business empire.  

After winning two elections, he ran into the issue of term limits in 2016, when the next elections were supposed to be held.  He spent some time looking for legal loopholes which would allow him to stand for office again, and managed to delay the election by two years.  However, facing intense diplomatic pressure and increasing domestic protests, he agreed to step down after the 2018 election.

Kabila selected Shadary, the former interior minister, to stand as the candidate of his newly created party Front commun pour le Congo (FCC).  Shadary doesn’t have much of an independent power base, and it was widely assumed that Kabila would still hold real political power if he won.  

The opposition unites, briefly

The famously fractious Congolese opposition tried to capitalize on Shadary’s weakness by unifying around a single candidate.  In November 2018, they met in Geneva and settled on Martin Fayulu, the leader of a minor opposition party.  However, this didn’t sit well with Tshisekedi, who leads the country’s largest opposition party, the Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social (UDPS).  He withdrew from the agreement and stayed in the race.

Félix Tshisekedi had some compelling reasons to believe that he could become president.  He is the son of Étienne Tshisekedi, a former prime minister and the country’s most prominent opposition leader until his death in 2017.  The older Tshisekedi was widely respected for speaking out against the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in the 1980s and 1990s.  

Because of this, the younger Tshisekedi has very strong name recognition across the DRC.  An October 2018 poll from the Congo Research Group found that a plurality of respondents supported Tshisekedi for the presidency, well ahead of either Shadary or Fayulu.  

A contentious election

The run-up to the election didn’t look promising for either of the opposition candidates.

The police forcibly dispersed Fayulu’s rallies in early December, killing several people and detaining many dozens more. Polling was delayed until March 2019 in two eastern provinces which are heavily opposed to Kabila, ostensibly because of concerns about the Ebola crisis.  

In addition, the government refused to accredit external election observers from the US and EU.  This left a domestic observation mission organized by the Catholic Church as the most prominent source of independent election data.  

Come December 30, the election went forward amidst widespread reports of voter suppression, broken voting machines, and interference from the military and rebel groups.

Competing electoral results

After the polls closed, the national electoral commission stated that the official results would be released around January 15.  Meanwhile, the Catholic observation mission announced on January 4 that their parallel tabulation showed Martin Fayulu winning with more than 50% of the votes.  Tshisekedi and Shadary were roughly tied for second place, with approximately 20% of votes each.  

The Church is deeply respected in the DRC, and this clear and prompt announcement of an opposition victory from a credible source made it much more difficult for the government to claim that Shadary had won outright.  

What happened next is the subject of a great deal of speculation.  On January 8, members of Tshisekedi’s campaign say that they met with representatives of Kabila and Shadary, although the latter two groups denied that any such meetings happened.  Two days later, the electoral commission named Tshisekedi the winner, with 38% of the vote to Fayulu’s 34% and Shadary’s 23%.  

Fayulu, understandably, feels that this result is illegitimate.  His supporters say that Tshisekedi must have struck a backroom deal to offer Kabila protection if he was declared the winner.  He is now planning to challenge the results in court, although it’s not clear if this will be resolved before Tshisekedi is supposed to be sworn in on January 18.

Broader trends in Congolese democracy

Tshisekedi’s unexpected victory highlights two important aspects of Congolese democracy.  

First, it demonstrates that even a strong president can’t hold on to power indefinitely in the fact of increasing diplomatic and societal opposition.  Kabila has major advantages in the political game, including great personal wealth and command of the armed forces, who are regularly deployed domestically to harass protestors.  Yet he only managed to delay his departure from office by two years, and couldn’t compel a sufficient number of voters to accept his chosen replacement. He also agreed to a peaceful transfer of power to his successor.  

This is quite different to the days of the dictator Mobutu, who held on to power in the DRC for more than thirty years in the face of continual protests and diplomatic isolation, and only left when he was overthrown by Laurent Kabila’s rebel group in 1997.

Second, the fractious and personalized nature of Congolese electoral politics opens the door to unusual coalitions, such as that between Kabila and Tshisekedi.  The electoral system is structurally designed to produce weak parties oriented around a single politician. It’s easy to register political parties in the DRC, and the country’s virtually non-existent private sector makes the perks of elected office look unusually appealing.  The result is a proliferation of dozens of tiny parties contesting every election.  

Once elected, politicians form an ever-shifting constellation of alliances as they seek to maximize their access to state resources.  Seeing candidates come to an agreement across the aisle is not nearly as unusual in the DRC as it is in parts of Europe or North America.  In this light, Tshisekedi’s apparent victory seems surprising, but not completely inexplicable.


Rachel Strohm is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley.  Her research focuses on state-building in the DRC and Indonesia. She is also the co-founder of the Mawazo Institute, a non-profit which provides research grants and training to women beginning academic careers in East Africa.

One thought on “The DRC: An unexpected transfer of power, but was it the right one?

  1. Look! Let’s cut this poor benighted country some slack. Democracy the world over is having a tough time right now; Donald Trump is holding the USA by the short hairs, and the UK is tearing her self apart over Brexit. If this somewhat compromised democracy delivers a president that manages to hold things together, who are we to complain? We never held out any hope for something better in the first place….and if the new president saves DRC from a bloodbath….I for one am happy.

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