Angola polls could spring a surprise
Angola goes to the polls on August 31 in a tense election that will be as much a test of the ruling party's popularity as the strength of the country's institutions and the population's commitment to peace.
Parliamentary seats are allocated according to the results of the ballot and the president is nominated from the top of the list of the party that wins the most votes.
The election comes at a critical moment in the consolidation of Angola's post-war democracy.
In 2008, people voted for stability and continuity – memories of 1992, when a close result led to a fresh outbreak of civil war, loomed large – and the ruling MPLA secured a massive 82% majority. But four years on, Angola has changed and so have its voters.
Rising discontent over a perceived lack of a "peace dividend" and the widening gap between rich and poor has seen many Angolans grow tired of the ruling party, which claims to be working for the povo (people) but whose leaders are growing wealthier by the day, thanks to the country's booming oil-driven economy.
The country's notorious cultura de medo (culture of fear), a legacy of decades of civil war that in peacetime has been maintained by a mixture of patronage networks and quiet intimidation, is slowly starting to recede.
There have been Arab Spring-inspired street demonstrations led by the youth, calling on long-serving President José Eduardo dos Santos to resign, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. And, although the mainstream media is heavily censored, the advent of social media has given people a way to discuss politics.
In 2008, the main opposition party, Unita, accepted its heavy defeat and chose not to contest the result in the interests of stability, but this time around its leaders have been extremely critical of the National Electoral Commission. Working through the courts, they have successfully removed an MPLA member from the commission's presidency and stopped plans for a separate voting process for members of the police and armed forces.
But with just a week to go before voting, the party's leader, Isaías Samakuva, claims many other issues, such as the voters' list not being published or audited, are unresolved and has called for a nationwide protest to take place on August 25.
Another demonstration, called by former soldiers who claim they have not been paid military pensions for years, is planned for voting day itself. If the MPLA therefore secures another landslide victory under a cloud of alleged vote-rigging, there could be street protests.
"It is all very open-ended," said Lisa Rimli from New York-based lobby group Human Rights Watch.
"It is hard to predict what may happen, but what is certain is that the less credible the polls appear to be, the more we can expect protests. People are a lot less scared to come out and challenge now compared with just a few years ago.
"There is a new generation that does not remember the war and they are also the people who feel the most let down by this government."
Veteran Angolan journalist and anti-corruption campaigner Rafael Marques said no one expected the country would return to war, but the voters were not likely to accept a "cooked" result.
"People are not so willing to sit idly by as they were in 2008. This has made it very complicated for the authorities, because they know people know what they are doing."
Rimli agreed. "The last election was very much a first time, a trial run. But now the opposition parties have hopefully learnt from their mistakes in terms of how to monitor and observe, and it should be harder for people to be tricked in such a blunt way.
"The big concern is how the ruling party reacts to challenges, because we have seen in recent months from their reactions to youth protests that they are growing increasingly intolerant to any criticism."
With only a few international observers following the election – the European Union is not sending a mission because of costs – another issue will be how the courts respond to electoral disputes. All senior judges are hand-picked by Dos Santos and few believe they would dare to stand up to the president or the ruling party.
There are also said to be strong links between the security services and the electoral commission and many voting stations are reportedly being manned by undercover agents.
The government's response to allegations of electoral fraud by Unita, other parties and civil society groups has been to say it is too big to need to cheat. It has accused its opponents of creating doubt to discredit the process and detract from their lack of policies.
It has also staunchly defended the electoral commission, which has raised even more questions about its links to the commission, and has accused the protest organisers of trying to incite disobedience and create instability.
An editorial this week in the country's only daily paper, the state-owned Jornal de Angola, said Unita was displaying its "genetic tendency" towards violence, witnessed in 1992 when the poll result triggered a new bloody phase in the country's long civil war.
But this rhetoric, which might have washed in 2008, is now starting to jar with voters who say it is the government that is on a war footing, sending army troops into Unita strongholds, leading heavy-handed crackdowns on protestors and reviving war-time slogans such as "Somos milhoes" (We are millions).
Marques, whose blog Maka Angola has been instrumental in making available independent reports about the electoral campaign, said: "Angola is a de facto one-party state that uses national reconstruction as a new form of tyranny. People are served with some infrastructure such as hospitals, but are not allowed to complain about the lack of equipment, doctors, medicine and basic sanitation."
Paula Roque, an Angola expert at the University of Oxford, agreed that the MPLA's claims of democracy, modernisation and sustainable development were a façade. She said if the elections were run fairly, there was a chance for the political landscape to change for the better.
"The MPLA are still likely to secure a victory but the opposition would become an important reforming force for the country," she said. "This is a real opportunity for the opposition parties to secure their place and begin to make their change from within. And for the people of Angola it is a chance to determine the political configuration of the country."
Angola is the second-largest oil producer in Africa after Nigeria, and international investors who desperately want a slice of the economy, which this year is forecast to grow by nearly 10%, will be watching the results and aftermath nervously.