Angola: At the polls and beyond

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As Angolans go to the polls today, Paula Cristina Roque shares with us her thoughts on the elections, and the prospects for democratic change. Paula is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford.

As events of the last year have shown us, Marx was right: people do not make history in circumstances of their own choosing. In the twists and turns of Angola’s history, opportunities for change have been lost either in the polls, in the battlefield, through international manipulation, or in the continued denial of a society that does not see itself in the image of its government. The country is once again heading towards elections today – only the third ever in a country that experienced almost 30 years of civil war – and over nine million voters are ready to cast their vote. At present, Angola is effectively a one-party state, with the MPLA ruling over a highly divided unintegrated and regionalised nation. Angola’s polls are expected to be a democratic farce, lacking the free, fair and transparent processes that would allow voters to shape the political landscape of their country. Such predictions are almost certainly correct: today, the MPLA under the leadership of president Jose Eduardo dos Santos are likely to manufacture another mandate to rule.

Whilst the country’s last parliamentary polls in 2008 (which severely weakened the opposition) were not entirely free and fair, electoral process was far better than it is today. Back then parliament – with a stronger opposition presence – had legislation in place to protect electoral proceedings, the media was able to act more independently, multiple parties engaged in political debate, and international observers and journalists were circulating throughout the country. By contrast, these polls are being held in an opaque environment that is ridden with procedural irregularities and missed deadlines. The legitimate claims and grievances of figures from opposition parties and civil society are being ignored and in the MPLA’s repression becomes less discrete by the day. The elections themselves will be a democratic charade, as the MPLA secure a pre-determined majority in excess of 80%. A more accurate gauge of popular sentiment is likely to be found as people vote with their feet, by hitting the streets.

Since March 2011, growing numbers of Angolans have taken to the streets in the nation’s capital and beyond. The protests began with a small group of youths demanding change. Most of two-hundred-or-so marchers had no party affiliation and little experience civic action but their fearless calls for dos Santos to stand down, and their denunciation of corruption, poverty, water and power shortages have been an inspiration to others. Together, these voices have broken down the biggest barrier to political protest in Angola: fear. Despite the government’s ruthless reaction to these early marches, civil servants, ex-combatants, national radio workers and others have followed suit. This is unheard of in Angola and springs from a decade in which any peace dividend has eluded the majority, large infrastructure projects are completed only during electoral campaigns and crucial economic sectors like agriculture and manufacturing lie undeveloped, whilst corruption in the upper echelons of government continues to rise.

The breadth and depth of this discontent means that if polling were to happen without a democratic hitch today the 82% majority that the MPLA currently holds would be hit hard. That is not to say, however, that the MPLA would loose power. It is too late to undo the political advantage the party has gained through its tight grip on the state’s security forces, the media and state coffers. Moreover, Angola’s opposition parties are weak and presents voters with no clear successor to the efficient political machine that is the MPLA. Nonetheless, a free and fair poll would give opposition parties like UNITA, PRS, FNLA and the newly created CASA-CE coalition a chance to increase their electoral margin. Such gains would not immediately revolutionise politics in the country, but they could mark the beginning of a long-term shift in the political landscape that would challenge the MPLA’s dominance.

Today, the MPLA may thwart this advance. But whilst dos Santos’ victory might be relatively easy to engineer, his control over the country in the coming years will not. In the past, the MPLA has managed the rate and form of change and this has worked to its benefit but that may not be a privilege it will continue to have for much longer. For, what we are seeing in recent protests is an opposition that will not be silenced by fear or engineered electoral victories.

Indeed, if dos Santos is to quell such protest, he will have to act fast. Angola is a country of growth and transformation but for this to be sustainable, something has to give. In short, the MPLA will have to face the realities of the country they govern: wealth disparities, economic marginalization, and political disenfranchisement. If it fails to do so, and ignores the voices that are slowly and bravely rising from nation’s streets, the only certain outcome is that Angola will be plunged into yet more uncertain and dangerous times.

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