MPLA loses its reliable fear factor in Angola

The optimistic oranges and yellows of an MPLA election poster are in stark contrast to the ramshackle reality and hardships ordinary people face in Luanda, Angola’s capital. (Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters)

The optimistic oranges and yellows of an MPLA election poster are in stark contrast to the ramshackle reality and hardships ordinary people face in Luanda, Angola’s capital. (Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters)

In the Angolan capital Luanda, party flags hang limply from trees and campaign posters peel and fade in the sun. People have gone back to work, the city's infernal traffic jams throb once more and once frightened foreigners have returned.

The heads of the defeated opposition pound with disappointment and anger, though not nearly as hard as the heads of those in the ruling party, who are feeling the growing weight of expectation.

And there is a lot of expectation.

The MPLA has governed Angola since independence from Portugal in 1975, seen it through a coup attempt, two chapters of a bloody war and transition to peace.

But now comes what may be the MPLA's sternest test: to satisfy a growing and young electorate who are losing their culture of fear and starting to demand a real peace dividend.

Despite Angola's significant natural resources – it is Africa's second-largest oil producer and rich in diamonds and other minerals more than half of its citizens live in poverty in slums and shacks and have no electricity or running water.

For many years the government has blamed the war for the slow pace of delivery, but a decade of peace later its excuses are wearing thin.

In response to a spate of unpre-cedented street protests led by young people calling for more equality and the resignation of the president of 33 years, José Eduardo dos Santos, the MPLA's $75-million campaign ran under the slogan "Growing more to distribute better".

Work harder
Perched on a stool to have his shoes shined, Jorge de Sousa, a 49-year-old technician, said he was pleased with the election result. But, he commented: "The MPLA has to work harder to improve the country. We have placed our trust in them so they must deliver.

"There are still a lot of problems here and although there has been significant development, that perhaps sometimes conceals the shortcomings. If the MPLA does not address the basic problems, like the lack of water and electricity, they will not get back in next time around.

"People are not going to keep on like this. This could be the last chance for the MPLA to solve these problems – people are not going to stand for it forever."

On their own, De Sousa's comments are not remarkable, but saying them in Angola is. For the first time the MPLA is coming under real pressure to deliver more than promises or face the electoral consequences.

And ordinary Angolans – who for so long have taken the free T-shirt and voted with the pack to get a promotion or simply a job – are starting to evaluate their choices.

The emergence at this election of a new political party, Convergência Ampla da Salvação de Angola-Coligação Eleitora (Casa-CE), which, despite having formed only in March, was able to win 6% of the national vote, has blown apart the traditional two-horse race between the former civil war enemies – the main opposition, Unita, and the MPLA.

Moreover, within the MPLA there are rumbling calls for reform – for the older guard to move aside for new blood to make the party more attractive to younger votes.

There is also a perception among a number of Angolans that the vote – in which the MPLA won an absolute majority of 72% – was not quite as "free, fair, transparent and credible" as the international electoral observers have claimed.

Delayed publication
Beyond the allegations of ghost voters and stuffed ballot boxes leading to results not matching the numbers at parallel counts, the delayed publication of voter lists led to ­confusion on polling day and an abstention rate in some places of 40%.

Large numbers of party delegates and international and national observers were also unable to get accreditation to monitor the voting or count votes, and a group from Casa-CE who complained about this outside the electoral commission's offices found themselves in custody for the weekend.

"I think people have lost some belief in the process and its integrity," said Angolan academic Paula Roque, from the University of Oxford.

"They are disappointed and angry and will want even more from the government, even if they don't believe it is truly legitimate."

Unita has accused the National Electoral Commission of irregularities and fraud, which it says affected its total number of votes. Nonetheless, at 19% it is almost double what it scored in 2008.

Leader Isaías Samakuvais expects to challenge the final result at the Constitutional Court, as does the leader of Casa-CE, Abel Chivukuvuku.

Anti-government demonstrations
Luaty Beirao, an outspoken Angolan musician who is part of the youth movement behind several recent anti-government demonstrations, said he had no doubt the vote was fixed.

He told the Mail & Guardian: "Of course the ruling MPLA will try to use this victory to say 'look, you troublemakers trying to give a bad image of the country, the population and the majority support the MPLA so you should be quiet and wait until the next election if you're not happy'."

But the 32-year-old said the election result alone was not enough to silence people. "The ball is rolling now and I think it will only get bigger and bigger. And dissent and discontent, it is growing; you only have to go anywhere in this city to see that people are not happy and they are impatient."

The National Electoral Commission has strongly refuted Unita's allegations and the MPLA and Dos Santos himself has repeatedly denied any manipulation of the vote.

In several editorials in the country's only daily paper, the government mouthpiece Jornal de Angola, the fraud allegations have been dismissed as coming from bad losers trying to make trouble and save face.

A glitzy 70th birthday party for the president on Sunday evening become a de facto victory party, even though at that stage only two-thirds of the results had been counted.

"I feel very happy to have been chosen by the Angolan people," Dos Santos told the well-heeled crowd. "Once more the people have placed their trust into the MPLA to govern Angola for the next years."

Dos Santos, who was flanked by his wife Ana Paula, a former air hostess nearly 20 years his junior, said he would do all he can to guarantee fulfilment of the MPLA's campaign pledges. The Angolans will be waiting.

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