Six bishops from the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have recognized the election of Felix Tshisekedi as the nation’s president, following an election disputed by the national bishops’ conference and other observers.
Felix Tshisekedi, 55, was inaugurated as president last week, replacing former president Joseph Kabila after 17 years in office.
Tshisekedi heads the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, the country’s oldest and largest opposition party. His father was a prominent opposition leader for many years in the nation.
Six of the eight Catholic bishops of Kasai – Tshisekedi’s home region – acknowledged the victory on Sunday, AFP reported.
The DRC bishops’ conference had previously raised questions as to the election results and asked the UN Security Council to push the National Election Commission to publish data from the vote. The bishops suggested that the commission’s announcement of Tshisekedi winning did not correspond with the result of Catholic vote monitors.
The National Election Commission announced that Tshisekedi had won the December 30 presidential election with 38.6 percent of the vote, just surpassing another opposition leader, former oil executive Martin Fayulu, who had 34.8 percent.
The two major opposition candidates both finished well ahead of former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who had been officially backed by outgoing President Kabila but had never gained traction during the campaign.
The Congolese bishops’ conference did not say which candidate their data showed winning the vote. However, Fayulu claimed that he is the rightful winner and has suggested that Tshisekedi had made a power-sharing deal with Kabila to rig the election.
Fayulu appealed to the Constitutional Court asking for a recount of the votes. However, the court affirmed Tshisekedi’s victory.
Kabila has spent the last 17 years in power. While the nation’s term limits required the president to leave office in 2016, he refused to step down.
The bishops of the country, who have played a key role in promoting democracy, had helped mediate the 2016 New Year’s Eve Agreement between the country’s ruling political coalition and opposition leaders. Under the agreement Kabila was allowed to remain in office past his mandate, but agreed to step down after an election in 2018.
The bishops’ conference had also commissioned 40,000 election observers, who were sent to polling stations across the country to report on the election process.
In a Dec. 31 statement, the bishops’ conference had voiced concern about voting irregularities, including registered voters who were turned away from polling stations because their names were not on voting lists and election observers being expelled from polling stations by police officers.
Other election observers also reported irregularities including voting machine malfunctions, polling stations opening late, locations being changed on short notice, and an inability to cast votes privately, according to the BBC.
Reuters has reported that observers from France and Belgium have also voiced doubts that Tshisekedi won the election, and three diplomats who had reviewed the Church’s observer mission data said Fayulu had won.
The 2018 election was a major test for the volatile nation, which has been plagued by political corruption, instability, and violence, and has never seen a peaceful transition of power since it gained independence in 1960.