Angola's new dawn

On Friday about 8,3-million Angolans go to the polls, in the first election to be held under peaceful conditions since Angola won its independence in 1975.

Angolans will elect 223 National Assembly deputies from 5 198 candidates fielded by 10 parties and four political coalitions.

A two-day holiday was declared two days ahead of the election, with the participating parties wrapping up their campaigns with their final and biggest rallies. No campaigning was allowed in the 24 hours prior to the vote.

Unlike in the last election, which was held 16 years ago, the presidential vote will not be held simultaneously, reducing the threat that the electoral competition could potentially undo the six years of peace enjoyed since 2002.

The politics of this communist-oriented, one-party state until the constitutional reforms of 1991, however continue to be dominated by an executive system that remains extreme, even by African standards.

President José Eduardo dos Santos is the president, leader of the government, commander-in-chief and president of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). He appoints the prime minister and all line ministers and cannot be removed by a vote of no confidence in Parliament.

Angolan officials argue that the existence of a prime minister means the country’s system is only semi-presidential, but the prime ministerial post is often left vacant and Dos Santos retains the right to dissolve Parliament. His office is also largely responsible for new legislation, and draws up the state budget, which includes allocations to Parliament.

Although presidential elections are to be held next year, Dos Santos is yet to give an indication of a date or of whether he intends to run for office. Under current rules, he could extend his 28-year occupation of Angola’s most powerful office by another 12 years.

The ruling MPLA, dubbed the “Movement for the Presidential Looting of Angola” by local wags, has two main opponents: the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), which draws most of its support from the Bakongo people of northern Uije and Zaire provinces, and MPLA’s old enemy, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), which has its powerbase among the Ovimbundu in the central highlands and some of the southern Angolan provinces.

While the FNLA has all but imploded politically since the death of its founder, Holden Roberto, in 1997, a newly reconstituted Unita under Isaias Samakuva is possibly the best organised—if not best funded—political rival and stands a reasonable chance of whittling away the MPLA’s absolute majority in the National Assembly, which it currently holds with 129 of 223 seats.

Of the smaller parties, especially the Front for Democracy (FPD) and the Party of the Alliance of Youth, Workers and Peasants of Angola (Pajoca), led by feisty human rights lawyer David Mendes, are expected to make a dent in the MPLA’s stranglehold over national politics.

But the MPLA is taking nothing for granted and has stacked the deck as much as it can against its opponents, taking every possible advantage from its incumbency. The chief factor is money. Although the smaller parties receive state funding, none of these funds have yet been released, while the MPLA has spared no expenses to drape the main street of every city and town in Angola in their signature red, black and yellow.

Unita this week complained that not only were they being starved of cash, but that the MPLA is receiving illegal funding. According to Unita, one of the local state-owned banks “donated” $43-million to the MPLA .

To add insult to injury, Pajoca’s Mendes was arrested at the Luanda airport by the Fiscal Police last week for not declaring $83 810, which his party said was to pay for election materials to be printed outside the country.

At the same time the MPLA has staffed the two bodies responsible for overseeing elections—the National Electoral Commission (CNE) and the Inter-ministerial Commission for the Electoral Process (Cipe)—with hand-picked loyalists; one top Cipe official is also a MPLA candidate.

While the opposition parties have been given access to state television to state their case, the rest of the state media have all but ignored the opposition parties, with Dos Santos featured on every front page of the Journal de Angola in the past week. Opposition parties only get similar treatment if there is negative news—such as an opponent defecting to the MPLA, or Mendes’s arrest.

The New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) last week slammed the lead-up to the election as neither free nor fair. “The conditions for free and fair elections start long before election day ... it’s clear Angolans aren’t able to campaign free from intimidation or pressure. And unless things change now, Angolans won’t be able to cast their votes freely,” HRW Director Georgette Gagnon said. 

Nonetheless, the smaller parties are not about to throw in the towel. Resentment of the perceived corruption of the ruling party runs deep, especially among the poor, for whom basic living conditions remain wretched: they lack clean water and electricity, educational and health- care facilities.

The smaller parties also complain of political meddling by the MPLA, which has honed the craft of buying off opponents. Payoffs come in the form of offers of houses, cars and cushy jobs in a government flush with oil revenues—and bags of cash. “Many of them have sold out, they just want a bit of bom vida [good life] and are just going through the motions,” said a Western diplomat.

But in contrast to the United Nations-run elections of 1992, the current atmosphere couldn’t be more different. Then a glowering Unita leader, Jonas Savimbi, rejected the presidential results and plunged his country back into a further decade of war, which ended only when he was hunted down and shot dead in remote Moxico Province in April 2002.

Between 1992 and 2002, wearing a Unita T-shirt in Luanda was the equivalent of asking for a death sentence. According to the Catholic church, in the aftermath of Savimbi’s return to war, revenge attacks saw thousands of Unita supporters massacred, often by their neighbours .

The CNE, for all its faults, has been at pains to stress the reconciliation process in nightly television broadcasts that emphasise the right to different political opinions. While only the MPLA’s colours are seen in the Luanda city centre, the colours of Unita—and to a lesser extent, the FpD, Pajoca and the Social Renewal Party—are more visible in the outlying, teeming slums.

Apart from small posters occasionally spotted on telephone poles around Luanda, the other smaller parties are all but invisible, and the campaign appears to be shaping into a two-and-a-half-horse political race.

Nowhere was this rivalry more obvious than in the suburb of Bairro Samba, where Unita has opened an office in clear view of Dos Santos’s luxurious palace overlooking the bay and the brand-new Brazilian-built highway.

On Sunday MPLA activists—clearly irritated by this affront—organised a party on a traffic island right opposite the Unita office, tempting their hungrier opponents with offers of beer, meat and political conversion in clear violation of a political code of conduct that requires parties to avoid direct confrontation.

A hovering policeman asked about the party—which also amounted to a traffic obstruction—gave a surly look when questioned about the MPLA’s adherence to rules: “What do you want, you want me to close the Unita office?” he barked.

Nearby, a man in his 40s who identified himself only as Bruno smiled when asked about the brand-new MPLA T-shirt and cap he was wearing. Angolans have gotten a lot smarter, they have access to the Internet and other media these days and can make up their minds for themselves, he said.

“I eat their meat but only I know what is in my heart,” he said.

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