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DR Congo’s Felix Tshisekedi: From opposition scion to provisional president-elect

Junior D. Kannah, AFP | Felix Tshisekedi attends a memorial service for his late father, DR Congo's longtime opposition leader, in Kinshasa on February 1, 2018.

The son of DR Congo's veteran opposition leader, Felix Tshisekedi has taken the prize that long eluded his father – the presidency of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country – in a surprise result his main opponent has denounced as an "electoral coup".

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On Thursday Tshisekedi was named by election officials as the provisional winner of the country’s long-delayed, chaotic and controversial presidential poll, in a surprise announcement that appeared to contradict both pre-election surveys and the findings of independent monitors.

Runner-up Martin Fayulu, the pre-election favourite, promptly denounced the results as an “electoral coup” that does “not reflect the truth of the ballots”.

In an unusually blunt comment on a foreign election, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also waded into the controversy, describing the results as “not consistent" with observers' reports. He added: "The Catholic Church of Congo did its tally and announced completely different results."

If Tshisekedi's stunning victory is confirmed by the constitutional court, he will become the first Congolese leader to take power at the ballot box since Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who was toppled and killed in a coup shortly after independence in 1960.

'A historic vote and a historic win'

Tshisekedi is the head of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), a party founded by his father Etienne, who spent decades as the country's main opposition leader but died in February last year.

Known to his friends as "Fatshi", the portly 55-year-old is now poised to replace President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the volatile, poverty-stricken nation with an iron fist since 2001.

But for a while, it looked like he wouldn't even be on the ballot.

Pentecostal rivals

On November 11, Tshisekedi joined six other opposition leaders in rallying behind Fayulu to take on Kabila's handpicked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

But the deal drew a furious response from his supporters, prompting him and fellow opposition leader Vital Kamerhe to abandon the deal and run on a joint ticket, weakening and splitting the opposition.

The pair had previously agreed that if they won, Kamerhe would become Tshisekedi's prime minister.

Profile: Felix Tshisekedi

Since his father founded the UDPS in 1982, the party has served as an opposition mainstay in the former Belgian colony – first under dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, then under Kabila's father Laurent-Desire Kabila, who ruled from 1997 until his death in 2001.

A father of five, Tshisekedi goes to the same Pentecostal church as Fayulu in Kinshasa, the capital.

Although he does not enjoy the same degree of popularity as his father, he has risen steadily through the party ranks.

"Etienne was stubborn and proud," said one keen observer of the country's opposition. "Felix is more diplomatic, more conciliatory, more ready to listen to others."

Coup’

In 2008, Tshisekedi became national secretary for external relations and was elected to the national assembly in 2011 as representative for Mbuji-Mayi, the country's third city.

However, he never took up his seat as he did not formally recognise his father's defeat to Kabila in a presidential election the same year.

A month after his father's death, Tshisekedi was elected as party head.

Although he holds a Belgian diploma in marketing and communication, his opponents point out that he has never held high office or had managerial experience. And some detractors have even suggested his diploma is not valid.

The legacy of DR Congo's Joseph Kabila

Tshisekedi has promised a return to the rule of law, to fight the "gangrene" of corruption and to bring peace to the volatile east of the country, where several militias remain active more than 15 years after the end of DR Congo’s bloody civil war.

However, the result of the presidential election, which observers said was marred by a spate of irregularities, is certain to fuel suspicions among Fayulu's supporters that Tshisekedi struck a power-sharing pact with Kabila – suspicions heightened by his victory speech on Thursday, in which he described his former bitter opponent Kabila as a “partner of democratic change”.

Fayulu, who was running well ahead of Tshisekedi in opinion polls ahead of the election, on Thursday called on the Congolese people to "rise as one man to protect victory."

Analysts have warned that any widespread perception the election has been stolen could trigger a cycle of unrest, particularly in the eastern borderlands where Fayulu enjoys some of his strongest support.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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