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Surprise twist in Congo's chaotic election

Waiting for results in Kinshasa. Photo: Caroline Thirion/AFP/Getty Images

The ruling party was routed, strongman Joseph Kabila is stepping aside after 18 years, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a chance to complete its first-ever peaceful transfer of power.

Between the lines: Things are nowhere near that simple. There are widespread suspicions that Kabila cut a deal with Felix Tshisekedi, who was declared the winner last night by Congo's electoral commission. The Catholic Church, which deployed 40,000 election observers and is one of the few trusted institutions in Congo, reportedly found that another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, was the "clear winner."

The latest: The French foreign minister is among those questioning the official results, which he said were "the opposite to what we expected."

Catch up quick:

  • Elections should have been held two years ago but Kabila, up against term limits, clung to power in the massive, mineral-rich country of 80 million.
  • Elections were delayed again, this time by a week, when an apparent arson attack destroyed most of the voting machines set to be used in the capital, Kinshasa.
  • When the vote did take place on Dec. 30, two opposition strongholds weren't allowed to take part, officially because of concerns over insecurity and Ebola. After the vote, internet and texting services were cut because "fictitious results" were spreading.

The key players:

  • Kabila, still just 47, took power in 2001 after his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated during the brutal Second Congo War. He threw his support behind Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who finished a distant third.
  • Tshisekedi is the son of a longtime opposition leader. He has vowed to unite the fractious country and said he considers Kabila an ally in that effort.
  • Fayulu, a former energy executive who surged to front-runner status in the months before the vote, has labeled the results "fabricated" and "a treachery." He called on his supporters to "stand together, as one man, to protect our victory."

Be smart:

  • Kabila had to settle for "Plan C," the FT's David Pilling writes. Plan A was to stay in power. Plan B was Shadary. "And so we come to Plan C. Bestow victory upon Tshisekedi. ... Presumably the president has received assurances that the new government will not delve too deeply into his or his entourage’s pecuniary affairs."
  • "A chaotic, unstable Congo at the center of the continent is a costly drag on African ambitions to enjoy more peace and prosperity in the decades ahead," Michelle Gavin of the Council on Foreign Relations writes in Foreign Policy, calling on leaders in South Africa and around the region to speak out.
  • "Protests will follow. Their intensity will depend on the extent to which Congolese are simply happy to see Kabila depart," writes Matt Ward of Oxford Analytica.

What to watch: These results are still preliminary. Fayulu's supporters are outraged. Appeals are likely, and violence is possible. We may not have heard the last from this chaotic election.

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