To the casual observer, opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi’s victory in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s presidential election appears to be a turning point. The UN commended the conduct of the vote and congratulated the long-suffering Congolese people, as the streets of Kinshasa filled with celebrating supporters. Rival opposition leaders and the Catholic Church however, claimed that the regime of Joseph Kabila had fraudulently manipulated results to satisfy a backroom deal to exclude the real winner after his handpicked successor was comprehensively beaten. Leaked electoral data appeared to corroborate this, but the constitutional court batted down a subsequent legal challenge.

The UN’s carefully worded approval was eventually joined by western governments and inter-governmental organisations who had lobbied for free and fair elections. Even the African Union’s call for the results to be suspended was rescinded, and Mr Tshisekedi was welcomed to its summit in February. This pattern follows recent contests in Zimbabwe, Togo and Madagascar, preserving authoritarian regimes. The preference for stability over democracy is nothing new, but it has become more fundamental to policy in recent years; the EU’s programme to stem African migration at its source relies on accords with Sudanese and Egyptian autocrats and Libyan militias.

The US and EU’s desire to outsource domestic issues to autocratic regimes reflects exhausted political will to defend norms beyond their borders. Inward-looking populist constituencies have discouraged western governments from extending themselves to incentivise democratising reforms and protect their previous investments in nation-building, worth billions of dollars and hundreds of lives in the DRC alone. This has already encouraged authoritarian leaders to more flagrantly rig elections, confident of riding out the resultant turmoil and political violence, while maintaining a legitimising shell of institutions and political competition. For voters stuck in a vicious cycle of disenfranchisement and disillusionment, solemn praises of renewed stability ring hollow.

This article first appeared in the Axco Flashpoints newsletter, which provides monthly analysis on emerging risks and geopolitics from our Global Risk Intelligence and Data (GRID) team. You can sign up at

Image Credit: MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti