A court ruling that ousted the controversial president of Angola's national electoral commission has been hailed by the country's opposition parties.
The parties .were considering boycotting elections over her appointment.
In a surprising judgment last week, the Supreme Court removed Suzanna Inglês as head of the commission, upholding the complaint that she was a lawyer and not a judge, as the law requires, and not independent because of her membership of the ruling party.
It is extremely rare in Angola for the courts to rule against the government or the ruling MPLA, because senior judges are personally appointed by long-serving President José Eduardo dos Santos.
The party, which has been in power since Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975, holds an 82% parliamentary majority. It uses it to maintain a firm grip on all aspects of Angolan life, but particularly the job market and natural resources.
Responding to the ruling, an editorial in the state-owned newspaper and government mouthpiece Jornal de Angola, which had attacked those who questioned Inglês’s appointment, claimed that the judgment proved the independence of the judiciary and should silence the allegations of fraud being levelled at the electoral commission.
But observers say the MPLA had no choice but to accept the judgment and the party probably deliberately orchestrated the decision in an attempt to counter growing negative publicity and restore public faith in the electoral process.
Despite the court ruling in its favour, the main opposition party, Unita, went ahead last Saturday with countrywide street rallies, originally convened as a mass protest against Inglês, to call for free, fair and transparent elections. They were attended by thousands.
With fewer than three months to go until the poll, there are growing concerns about state media bias and the exploitation of government resources by the MPLA.
There have also been reports of vocal anti-government activists and opposition members being intimidated and, in some cases, attacked by masked gangs said to be linked to the ruling party.
Voter registration is another area of contention. It has been managed by the ministry for territorial administration and not the electoral commission, as the law decrees, and many are disappointed that the European Union will not be sending an observer mission to oversee the count, leaving the verification to local and African observers.
Angolan journalist and anti-graft campaigner Rafael Marques has questioned the ministry’s involvement in the registration and the decision to appoint the Angolan office of international consultancy company Deloitte to audit the process without issuing a public tender.
“There was no public tender held to award them this work and it was, we understand, Suzanna Inglês herself who chose Deloitte,” said Marques, who claimed that the value of conducting the audit was being undermined.
“Seeing as the Supreme Court has ruled that Inglês is not fit to hold the presidency of the commission, any decisions she made during her tenure should now be examined carefully. “We would also like to know the budget for this audit,” Marques added. “It is currently being kept secret, which raises suspicions that the money is not coming from the electoral commission but from some other stakeholder.”
Both the national electoral commission and the ministry of territorial administration have denied any wrongdoing.
Last month, in a speech to mark the 10th anniversary of the end of Angola’s 27-year civil war, Dos Santos personally responded to allegations of electoral fraud, including cries of foul play over Inglês’s appointment, and boasted that his party was too big to need to cheat.
This will be only the third election in Angola’s history. The first in 1992 was abandoned in mid-round because of the resumption of the fighting between the MPLA and Unita.
Sixteen years later, in 2008, a parliamentary poll passed off peacefully, albeit with some claims of fraud. But a presidential ballot that was scheduled for 2009 was never held, following a change in the Constitution.
Dos Santos, who has been in power for nearly 33 years, has never faced a full vote and under the existing system never will, because Angola’s head of state is now chosen from the top of the list of the party that secures the most parliamentary seats.
The MPLA is almost certain to win this election and 69-year-old Dos Santos, who is expected to head his party’s list, could continue to rule for another two five-year terms.