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A supporter of Felix Tshisekedi, who was named provisional winner of Democratic Republic of Congo's presidential election, holds a picture of him outside the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) headquarters in Kinshasa on Jan. 10, 2019.

JOHN WESSELS/AFP/Getty Images

Stephanie Wolters is a Senior Research Fellow focusing on Central Africa at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.

The announcement this past week that Opposition Leader Felix Tshisekedi won the recent presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo brought an end to weeks of tense waiting and two long years of political paralysis and uncertainty. For the first time in its history, the DRC will see a transfer of power from a ruling party to the opposition, a development few dared to imagine even a few weeks ago.

Over the past two years the Congolese people have gone into the streets again and again to fight for their right to vote, making it clear that they wanted President Joseph Kabila and his cronies to go. This domestic unrest led regional players such as Angola to pressure Mr. Kabila not to attempt to run again. This is a substantial victory for the Congolese people: Through sustained pressure, and at great risk to their lives, they secured the right to vote and ensured that the Congolese Constitution was respected. Even the fact that Mr. Kabila did not force through his candidate is a victory for which the Congolese people can take credit.

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So it would be a big set-back if, after all this hard work, the Congolese people were to have their vote stolen from them.

Mr. Tshisekedi’s electoral victory has already been challenged by the Catholic Church, one of the few players in the DRC to have credibility and the trust of large sections of the population. The Church deployed 40,000 observers to the polls on election day and says its results indicate that a different candidate won.

Martin Fayulu, the leader of the opposition Lamuka coalition has also rejected the official results. His coalition includes two political heavyweights, Jean-Pierre Bemba and Moise Katumbi, whom the Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) excluded from the election.

Mr. Tshisekedi’s supporters have been celebrating and even some who say they did not vote for him have welcomed his election, expressing the feeling that anyone is better than the ruling-party candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. There have been incidents of violence in parts of the country where Mr. Fayulu is particularly popular, but the scale of the protests is nothing compared with what was expected had Mr. Kabila’s hand-picked successor been declared the winner.

The question now is whether the population is content to accept a result from an institution that has been a key part of the ruling elite’s machinery just because it has given that victory to a political opponent.

Congolese presidential candidate Felix Tshisekedi attends an election event in Kinshasa on Dec. 21, 2018.

BAZ RATNER/Reuters

As it has in the pre-electoral period, the Congolese population’s reaction now will to a great extent drive regional and continental responses. If Congolese actors choose not to challenge CENI’s results and demand an investigation, it is highly unlikely that the African Union (AU) and the even more reluctant Southern African Development Community (SADC) will insist on greater transparency before endorsing the official result. The AU and SADC have done little to help the Congolese get to this point, but their voice remains important. South Africa, which has played a role in DRC elections in the past and is a new rotating member of the United Nations Security Council should also be pushing for greater transparency.

Mr. Tshisekedi himself should want to start his historic mandate without clouds of doubt hanging over his head. There has been talk of a deal between him and Mr. Kabila: He is declared the winner and in return shares power with Mr. Kabila and his elite. Eventually, we will know whether this was the case just by looking at Mr. Tshisekedi’s cabinet appointments, but he and his party have already gone from bashing Mr. Kabila and the electoral commission before the election to openly lauding Mr. Kabila as a Congolese hero. If Mr. Tshisekedi had won this election fair and square, and knew it, it seems doubtful he would have been so complimentary about a party the population has just voted out of office.

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Mr. Tshisekedi’s supporters understandably don’t want the results to be questioned, but they should. The elite in his party will benefit no matter how he governs, but Congolese citizens need courageous leadership that will tackle the fundamental problems in the country: state capture by a small group of civilians and military elite, massive corruption and vested national and international economic interests that undermine development.

If Mr. Tshisekedi is the real winner, and can prove it, he will have his work cut out for him, but his hands won’t be tied. If Mr. Kabila and his elite are the ones who put him there, and this is not challenged effectively, nothing will change. Mr. Kabila, who months ago was tarnished by his lingering in power, his extensive personal business interests and his government’s track record of repression and violence, can walk away with the certainty that the Congolese opposition can be bought for a price, and that the Congolese people’s voices can be silenced after all.

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