It’s election week in Angola (but don’t expect a real election)

So Angola goes to the polls this week, and José Eduardo dos Santos, Angola’s president since 1979 (pictured above), will overwhelmingly be reelected, notwithstanding the rumblings of dissent among the young, the poor and the unemployed.

The expectations are that Friday’s election will not be free and fair, as I’ve noted in the past.

But a semi-authoritarian regime with sham elections is a vast improvement on decades of civil war.  So Angola’s making progress, in that in the past decade, the country has pulled definitively out of a 30-year civil war, which began almost immediately after its independence in 1975.  A ceasefire declared in 2002 has held, and the country will have “elections” now for the second time since fighting ended.

An oil boom, too, has boosted the Angolan economy — the country recorded some of the world’s highest GDP growth rates in the past decade, including growth over 20% from 2005 to 2007, and it’s thought to be China’s largest oil supplier.  A drop in oil prices slowed Angola’s growth, but the country is expected to grow at around 10% in 2012 — oil production accounts for nearly 45% of the country’s GDP.

That’s where the good news ends.

Around 40% of the country’s 18.5 million citizens remains mired in poverty, and that fact, and the country’s stark rich-poor divide, has been the central issue in the campaigning leading up to the Angolan election.

Political parties in Angola still correspond to the two major groups that contested the civil war.

Dos Santos’s Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola – Partido do Trabalho (MPLA or the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola – Labour Party) currently controls 191 of the 220 seats in Angola’s Assembleia Nacional.

The main opposition party is the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA or the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola).  Although the MLPA is dominated by the northern Ambundu ethnic group and UNITA by the more southern Ovimbundu group, ethnicity does not play an especially huge role in Angolan politics, nor do standard measures of political ideology.

Isaias Samakuva, UNITA’s leader, has called for the election to be postponed in order to ensure a fairer process, and UNITA has accused dos Santos’s regime of widespread interference in the election process and rigging the vote through the use of state funds and through the control of the state media. 

Both UNITA and the MPLA have emphasized the need to reduce poverty in Angola.  UNITA has accused dos Santos and the MPLA of using the country’s new-found oil wealth to enrich themselves at the expense of housing, education and employment.  For his part, dos Santos last week pledged to spend $17 billion to increase the country’s electricity generation and distribution to give Angola’s poorest citizens access to energy, and he inaugurated a new dam in the Huambo province.  Currently, only around 30% of Angolans have access to electricity.

A third group, the Convergência Ampla de Salvação de Angola (the Casa-CE, or the Broad Convergence for Angola’s Salvation-Electoral Coalition), led by Abel Chivukuvuku and comprised of former UNITA members, is calling for a post-war political identity in Angola and a more competent, honest government.

Today, a decade into the post-war era, there are ample indications that many Angolans are hoping for an ‘Angolan spring’:

Students, artists and citizens’ rights activists, have been openly calling for demonstrations to overthrow dos Santos since last year.

30-year-old rapper Carbono Casimiro’s lyrics tell of the desperation felt by young people. His country, Angola, is one of the most resource-rich countries in the world, yet it offers no prospects for its youth.  Instead, they are ground down by unemployment, poverty and corruption.

We are all victims of catastrophic governance, that’s why I don’t just do music, but I hit the streets with other young people and demonstrate against the government”, says Casimoro. “But the government suppresses our freedoms, and we are afraid something could happen to us. We are peaceful and we’re not looking for confrontation with the government. We want justice..”

A small, but dedicated, group of youth protestors and war veterans have marched in Luanda against the regime, although a protest on June 20 was met with tear gas and live ammunition from police.  Anti-government protests are set to continue, despite a warning from Angolan police that they will punish anyone ‘disturbing the public order’ during and after the election, writes Jon Schubert for All Africa in a pessimistic piece assessing Angola’s future:

One week ahead of the elections, the situation in Angola is rather worrying.  The President multiplies the inauguration of public works, but the MPLA’s promise to build not just one but two million houses, and to create 8 million jobs appear increasingly desperate and unrealistic.  But the public media and the administration remain deeply partisan.  The elections have been rescheduled from September to 31 August, two days after the President’s birthday — a national holiday where free beer will flow for the masses.  The preparation of the elections by the CNE [National Election Commission] is fundamentally skewed: its new head, while formally neutral, remains a senior judge with close ties to the ruling party, and the audit of the voters’ roll, as well as the handling and electronic processing of votes, have been outsourced to companies close to the government without public tender, raising further fears of fraud.

Much will depend on the result of the elections.  If the MPLA wins with significantly more than 50 percent of the vote — which is likely due to its control of the entire process — the opposition will cry fraud, but the current leadership of the MPLA is extremely unlikely to relinquish power for the creation of a government of ‘national unity’.  The reactions of the opposition and youth protesters, as well as the repressive measures deployed by the regime, will be decisive in determining whether Angola remains the electoral authoritarian darling of cash-strapped western countries, or goes down the path of revolt and full-blown repression.

If the MPLA wins, dos Santos will be automatically reelected president for another five years, following a 2010 constitutional reform that abolished separate presidential elections.

Although he hasn’t made clear whether he will serve through 2017, dos Santos, at age 70, has hinted that his preferred successor is Manuel Vicente, who is the MPLA’s second candidate in the elections and will become Angola’s vice president if (when) the MPLA wins Friday’s elections, despite some apparent opposition from within the MPLA old guard, who favor someone with closer ties to the military.

Vicente, who led Angola’s nationalized oil firm Sonangol for 13 years, was appointed to a cabinet post earlier this year as minister of economic coordination, and is seen as even more corrupt than dos Santos.

As Markus Weimer notes in a piece for Chatham House, Vicente’s elevation to the vice presidency is a risk move for dos Santos:

In the process [dos Santos] bypassed many bona fide MPLA party members with liberation credentials who opposed Vicente.

Having Vicente on the ticket will do the president no favours in winning the popularity contest between him and the party. Dos Santos has always tried to avoid direct comparison with the party for fear of being undermined.  This is the reason no presidential elections took place in 2008 (82% was too high to beat), and the reason why the new constitution establishes the election of the legislative and the executive simultaneously (the first two names on the party list automatically become president and vice-president).

His insecurity about his own popularity amongst the people compared to that of his party is the president’s Achilles heel. Street protests against his 33 year rule and allegations of corruption against allies in his inner circle do not help.  But a beauty contest between him and the party is something he cannot escape.

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