DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Felix Tshisekedi has emerged from his father's shadow to become Congo's next president. For decades that post eluded his father, the venerated opposition politician Etienne, whose death in 2017 helped catapult his son into the limelight.
The passage of power from father to son is a familiar story in Congo, where President Joseph Kabila took office at age 29 after the assassination of his father, Laurent, in 2001. He stayed on two years beyond his mandate amid delayed elections that finally took place on Dec. 30.
Now Tshisekedi, 55, is taking over after a disputed vote, with his inauguration on Thursday marking troubled Congo's first democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960 from Belgium.
Many Congolese say his surprise victory is one the largely untested opposition leader did not earn.
Runner-up Martin Fayulu on Sunday lost a court challenge to the election results despite pointing to leaked data from Congo's electoral commission showing he easily won. Fayulu has declared himself the only legitimate president, but most Congolese have not heeded his call for peaceful protests.
Fayulu and his supporters accused Kabila of making a backroom deal with Tshisekedi when the ruling party's candidate did poorly. Fayulu, an opposition lawmaker and businessman who is outspoken about cleaning up Congo's sprawling corruption, is seen as a bigger threat to Kabila and his allies in the country of sprawling mineral wealth.
Tshisekedi "was somebody who would compromise and somebody they felt they could work with because he wasn't saying he would launch an investigation into Kabila," said Andrew Edward Tchie, research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
His presidency will essentially be "a continuation of the regime," Tchie said. Kabila's ruling coalition won a majority of National Assembly seats.
Tshisekedi, who has been largely quiet after the election, has not addressed the allegation of a secret deal. He told supporters after the court's declaration of his victory that "the Congo that we are going to form will not be a Congo of division, hatred or tribalism. It will be a reconciled Congo, a strong Congo that will be focused on development, peace and security."
Nobody thought the electoral process would be peaceful, Tshisekedi has said, and no one thought an opposition candidate would win.
After division among African leaders over the disputed vote, some have congratulated Tshisekedi and urged Congolese to move on in the interest of stability after decades of rebel-led turmoil that have left millions dead.
On Wednesday, the United States said it commits to working with Congo's new government but did not offer congratulations to Tshisekedi, instead encouraging Congo's government to address "reports of electoral irregularities" and be inclusive.
Until his victory, Tshisekedi's most notable political act had been briefly supporting Fayulu as the candidate of an opposition coalition last year but then breaking away within a day to pursue the presidency himself.
Tshisekedi, a father of five, quietly built his career in the shadow of his father, taking over Congo's most prominent opposition party a year after his death.
He was named the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party's national secretary in 2008, and was elected a national deputy in 2011 for the city of Mbuji-mayi in Kasai Oriental province. In 2016 he became the party's vice secretary.
The party's supporters are nicknamed "the fighters" for their outspoken following. When they speak of Tshisekedi, they usually mention his charismatic father.
"Etienne left us the agreement (for Kabila to leave power), now Felix is going to be president," said one supporter, Jean-Baptiste Lay.
Etienne Tshisekedi's death came at a fragile moment for Congo. He was deeply involved in efforts to persuade Kabila to agree to step down amid sometimes deadly protests over the election delay.
The 84-year-old had formed the country's first opposition party in 1982 against the longtime dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko and briefly served several times as prime minister.
Tshisekedi went into exile in 2000 after clashes with Kabila's father, who took power after Mobutu's ouster. The opposition leader made a triumphant return in 2003 when Joseph Kabila was early in his rule. He lost to Kabila in the 2011 presidential election amid allegations of vote-rigging and declared himself president in protest.
When he died in Belgium, Kabila's government was so wary of the emotions that the return of his body to Congo could cause that until now it has been blocked from coming home.
Felix Tshisekedi, the only one of six sons to enter politics, doesn't have his father's fire, some observers say. Concerns remain about his abilities and qualifications. Some Belgian media have questioned the veracity of his diploma, but Congolese law says a candidate can either submit a diploma or serve a certain amount of time as a politician to qualify to run for president.
As Congo's incoming leader inherits the troubled country, he will look to his father's legacy. One of his first things Tshisekedi will do once sworn in, a spokesman said, is finally allow his father's body to come home for burial.
Associated Press writers Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo and Mathilde Boussion in Johannesburg contributed.
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