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Southern African leaders are calling for a vote recount and a negotiated coalition government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, casting more doubt over the disputed results of Congo’s much-delayed election.

The statement on Sunday, issued by Zambia on behalf of the governments of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), is an implicit recognition of the lack of credibility of the official election results.

It noted the “strong objections” that the official results have provoked, and it called on all Congolese leaders to “pursue a negotiated political settlement for a government of national unity” – similar to the negotiations that led to coalition governments in Kenya and Zimbabwe after disputed elections in 2007 and 2008.

The world has watched the Congo election closely, hoping for the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power in the history of the mineral-rich country of 80 million people, which has been ravaged by wars and rebellions for most of the past two decades.

The runner-up in the Dec. 30 election, opposition leader Martin Fayulu, has launched a legal challenge of the official results, arguing that the election was blatantly rigged to deny him victory. His supporters have taken to the streets to protest the results. Dozens of Congolese soldiers descended on Mr. Fayulu’s home in Kinshasa on Saturday, leading to accusations that they were trying to prevent him from filing his court challenge.

Mr. Fayulu had an overwhelming lead in pre-election opinion polls, yet Congo’s election commission declared that the winner was another opposition leader, Felix Tshisekedi, who had reportedly been in secret negotiations with Congo’s long-ruling president, Joseph Kabila, before the results were announced.

In the official results, Mr. Tshisekedi received 39 per cent of the vote and Mr. Fayulu received 35 per cent.

Congo’s influential Catholic bishops, who had the largest independent monitoring group with about 40,000 observers in voting stations on election day, have stated that Mr. Tshisekedi did not win the election, although they have not yet released their own data. The Catholic observers are widely reported to have concluded that Mr. Fayulu was the winner.

Further doubt was cast on the election on Saturday when the ruling party claimed that it won a majority of parliamentary seats in the election – even though its candidate finished third with only 24 per cent in the presidential election. With a parliamentary majority, Mr. Kabila’s ruling party would continue to enjoy substantial powers, including control of the appointment of the prime minister.

In a statement on behalf of SADC by Zambian president Edgar Lungu, who heads the SADC committee on politics and security, the bloc of Southern African countries warned that Congo’s peace and security could be endangered unless there is a swift response to the “elements of doubt” surrounding the election.

“SADC has taken note of the strong doubts cast on the polls outcome by the Roman Catholic Church … the opposition Lamuka coalition and other observers, and therefore feels a recount would provide the necessary reassurance to both winners and losers,” the statement said.

“SADC therefore encourages all parties to enter into a political process towards a government of national unity in order to enhance public confidence, build bridges and reinforce democratic institutions,” it added.

Similar coalition governments were “very successful” in creating stability and peace in Zimbabwe and Kenya in 2008, and in South Africa in 1994 after the end of apartheid, it said.

SADC represents 16 countries, including Congo itself. Normally it takes a cautious approach to electoral disputes, so its call for a recount and a negotiated settlement is significant. It said Mr. Lungu had spoken to the official winner, Mr. Tshisekedi, and other key Congolese leaders before issuing the statement.

Mr. Fayulu, in a tweet on Sunday, welcomed the SADC statement. “It would be dangerous not to support the democratic process in the DRC,” he said. “We call on all parties to take their responsibilities to restore the truth of polls.”

Despite the SADC statement, it is unclear whether Africa’s most influential leaders are supporting a recount. South African foreign minister Lindiwe Sisulu, in a press conference on Sunday shortly before the SADC statement was released, made no mention of the possibility of a recount. Instead she said everyone should wait for the results of Mr. Fayulu’s court challenge.

It was also unclear why SADC is calling for a negotiated settlement when it is also seeking a vote recount, which might produce a more widely accepted result.

Ms. Sisulu said a negotiated coalition government might be “logical” and should be “considered” by the political parties, but she emphasized that she was not “prescribing” it as the solution.

She said the people of Congo might be “on the precipice of a new dawn” after suffering “a great deal of pain” in the many years of war and violence.

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