Congolese president-elect Felix Tshisekedi greets his supporters in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 10 2019. Picture: REUTERS/OLIVIA ADLAND
Congolese president-elect Felix Tshisekedi greets his supporters in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 10 2019. Picture: REUTERS/OLIVIA ADLAND

Kinshasa — Felix Tshisekedi, who was named provisional winner of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s presidential election, is the son of the country’s veteran opposition leader but has never held high office or even a managerial role.

Known to friends as “Fatshi”, the portly 55-year-old appears to have won the prize that long eluded his late father, who spent 35 years leading the opposition but never lived to win office.

Tshisekedi heads the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), the DRC’s oldest and largest opposition party which was founded and led by his father, Etienne. After his father died in February 2017, Tshisekedi took up the reins.

And in less than two years, he appears to have hit the jackpot, with the election commission naming him the surprise victor in December’s historic vote to succeed President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the volatile, poverty-stricken nation with an iron fist since 2001.

Victorious, his first words were a tribute to Kabila.

“Today we should no longer see him as an adversary, but rather as a partner in the democratic change in our country,” he told crowds of triumphant supporters.

But his apparent victory was not without controversy, with opposition rival Martin Fayulu, who came a close second, denouncing the result as an “electoral coup”.

And France’s top diplomat said the victory was “not consistent” with the results and that Fayulu appeared to have won, citing a parallel count by DRC’s powerful Catholic Church, which sent 40,000 observers to the election.

For a while, it looked like Tshisekedi’s name would not even be on the ballot.

On November 11, he joined six other opposition leaders to rally behind a single unity candidate, Fayulu, to take on Kabila’s handpicked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

But the deal drew a furious response from his supporters, prompting him and fellow opposition leader Vital Kamerhe to abandon the deal and run on a joint ticket, effectively weakening and splitting the opposition.

The pair had previously agreed that if they won, Kamerhe would become Tshisekedi’s prime minister.

Since his father founded the UDPS in 1982, the party has served as an opposition mainstay in the former Belgian colony — first under dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, then under Kabila’s father Laurent-Desire Kabila, who ruled from 1997 until his death in 2001.

A father of five, Tshisekedi goes to the same Pentecostal church as Fayulu in Kinshasa, the capital.

Although Tshisekedi does not enjoy the same degree of popularity as his father, he has risen steadily through the party ranks.

“Etienne was stubborn and proud,” said one keen observer of the country's opposition. “Felix is more diplomatic, more conciliatory, more ready to listen to others.”

In 2008, he became national secretary for external relations and was elected to the national assembly in 2011 as representative for Mbuji-Mayi, the country’s third city.

However, he never took up his seat as he did not formally recognise his father’s 2011 election defeat to Kabila.

A month after his father’s death, Tshisekedi was elected as party head. 

Although he holds a Belgian diploma in marketing and communication, he has had little political or managerial experience with some detractors even suggesting his diploma is not valid.

After announcing his bid to run for the presidency, Tshisekedi promised a return to the rule of law, to fight the “gangrene” of corruption and to bring peace to the east of the country.