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Supporters of Felix Tshisekedi celebrate in the streets of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Jan. 10, 2019.

BAZ RATNER/Reuters

Congo’s decision to declare Felix Tshisekedi as the official winner of its presidential election, a result at odds with evidence from polls and independent election observers, is facing a growing tide of skepticism both inside and outside the country.

An opposition coalition swiftly rejected the vote tally and vowed to launch a court battle that will prolong the country’s political crisis.

After lengthy delays and logistical disarray, Congo’s election commission announced at 3 a.m. on Thursday that Mr. Tshisekedi, an opposition candidate, had won with 39 per cent of the vote to 35 per cent for Martin Fayulu, who represents a broad opposition coalition. The ruling party’s candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, finished third with 24 per cent.

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Surveys of voters before the Dec. 30 election had shown Mr. Tshisekedi more than 20 percentage points behind Mr. Fayulu. The biggest team of independent observers, from the country’s influential and widely trusted Catholic Church that deployed observers at 40,000 voting stations, confirmed on Thursday that its own data showed Mr. Tshisekedi losing the election. Mr. Fayulu denounced the official result as “robbery” and a “coup.”

The international reaction was equally skeptical. Senior officials in France, Belgium, Britain and the United States all expressed concern and questioned the official result.

“It really seems that the declared results … are not consistent with the true results,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a French television channel. He said the official results were “totally different” from the results gathered by the Catholic Church’s independent observers.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted that he was “very concerned about discrepancies” in the election results. The election data “must be examined,” he said, adding that he was pleased that the United Nations Security Council will be discussing the Congo election in a meeting on Friday.

The election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been closely watched around the world. The country of more than 80 million people, which has suffered wars and poverty for decades, is seen as crucial to stability in central Africa. Its vast mineral resources have lured billions of dollars in investment from mining companies in Canada, China and elsewhere.

Political analysts said the government of President Joseph Kabila is likely to have chosen Mr. Tshisekedi as the weakest and most pliable of the opposition leaders after concluding that its own candidate could not win. There was widespread speculation by analysts and politicians that Mr. Kabila negotiated a backroom power-sharing deal with Mr. Tshisekedi, allowing him to become president while Mr. Kabila continues to control key sectors such as the military and security agencies. Local media have reported that secret meetings were recently held between Mr. Tshisekedi’s campaign and the Kabila government.

Mr. Kabila, who took power after the assassination of his father, has ruled Congo for the past 18 years. He was legally required to step down in 2016, but has repeatedly delayed the election. Congo has never had a peaceful democratic transfer of power, and many analysts believe Mr. Kabila is seeking to retain power by shaping the election outcome to his liking.

The defeat of the government’s candidate is seen as a step forward for democracy in Congo, but few analysts expect Mr. Kabila to hand over all of his powers voluntarily.

The official results are “highly implausible,” said Pierre Englebert, a U.S. expert on African politics and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, in an analysis published on Thursday.

He suggested that Mr. Tshisekedi may have been declared the winner as a result of a bargain with Mr. Kabila, perhaps because he has wavered in his opposition to the government in the past.

Another key reason for skepticism about the official results was the absence of any votes from three opposition strongholds, where the election commission has postponed the voting until March, citing an Ebola outbreak and an upsurge of violence.

The postponement in those three regions meant that 1.25 million voters were disenfranchised from the presidential election – enough to tip the balance in favour of Mr. Fayulu, who was less than 700,000 votes behind Mr. Tshisekedi in the official tally.

Many analysts have warned that an implausible or rigged election could trigger an eruption of violence in Congo’s streets. The government has deployed riot police and other security forces in some sections of the capital, Kinshasa, but the city was reported to be largely peaceful on Thursday. Protests did erupt in a few regions of the country, and four people were reported to be killed in clashes between police and protesters in Kikwit, a stronghold of Mr. Fayulu.

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Mr. Tshisekedi, 55, is the son of a prominent opposition leader, Étienne Tshisekedi, and inherited the leadership of his father’s opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, after his father’s death in 2017. He participated in negotiations with other opposition leaders to unite around a single opposition candidate, but backed out of a tentative agreement and ran a separate campaign.

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