Angolan election: opposition gains ground despite malpractice

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Opposition Gains Ground

Following the Angolan election results, Justin Pearce takes a look at the country’s political landscape and the prospects for future change. Justin Pearce is a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London.

Angola is preparing to swear in a new government after elections on 31 August in which official results gave 71% of the vote to the ruling MPLA. The results may look like a landslide by any normal standards, but the implications are more complicated. First, questions about electoral fraud have yet to be answered and will likely never be answered. Second, if we do accept the official results, they indicate a substantial swing towards the opposition: a swing that reflects an unprecedented level of political debate and civic participation over the past year and a half.

In the days after the election, the three largest opposition parties brought complaints before the National Electoral Commission (CNE). UNITA, CASA-CE and the PRS alleged that almost one third of electors were prevented from voting because of the voters’ rolls had been tampered with in a way that left some people off the list altogether and reassigned others to faraway polling stations where they had no possibility of travelling to vote.  A further and related claim concerned the CNE’s failure to register party representatives – as stipulated by the electoral law – to observe all aspects of the voting, counting and tabulation process. This meant that in many locations, voting went ahead with no observers who were not linked to the government and / or MPLA. First the CNE, and then the Constitutional Court, rejected the parties’ petition. In the absence of independent scrutiny, it is unlikely that we will ever have an accurate idea of how the Angolan public actually voted. The outcome is an electoral result that is credible only to ruling party supporters. A CNE whose composition is weighted heavily towards the incumbent party and government – the government, the presidency, and the MPLA are each entitled to nominate representatives – is part of the problem, and symptomatic of a more general embroilment of state and party in Angola.

If we leave aside the question of malpractice, the results suggest that the MPLA slid down by 10 percentage points relative to the parliamentary-only election in 2008. UNITA almost doubled its share of the vote, ending up with 19%. CASA-CE, founded only four months before the election by former UNITA official Abel Chivukuvuku, came from nowhere to take 6% of the vote, apparently picking up the votes of MPLA malcontents who still preferred not to vote for UNITA. This swing was particularly marked in Luanda, where the opposition took 40% of the vote in a city where the MPLA has its deepest historical roots: a reflection of the more open political environment and more diverse media available in the capital.

Luanda has also seen the greater part of the regular street protests that have taken place over the last eighteen months, led by young people tired of corruption, inequality and a president who has been in office longer than the average Angolan has been alive. The demonstrations were unprecedented in Angola. They were led by people who have come of age since the end of the war, and do who not accept either the government’s attempts to blame its own shortcomings on the war, or a discourse that casts political opposition as a threat to a process of post-war reconciliation and reconstruction led by the MPLA. Although the protests were non-partisan, they represent a challenge to the limits of public debate and popular participation that is also being seen in party politics.

Nevertheless, no matter what happens at the polling stations, real power in Angola resides in a small inner circle surrounding President dos Santos, over which the MPLA as a party has little control. Dos Santos has been in power since 1979, despite never being elected by due process: he was appointed by the MPLA during the single-party era, the 1992 presidential election was never completed, and the 2008 election was for parliament only. A constitutional change in 2010 ensured that with effect from 2012, there would no longer be separate parliamentary and presidential elections. As in South Africa, the new constitution in Angola awards the presidency to the first candidate on the winning party’s electoral list. Dos Santos managed to ensure that against the wishes of many in the upper echelons of the MPLA, the party’s vice-presidential candidate would be Manuel Vicente, a relative and close associate of Dos Santos, who for over a decade headed Sonangol: the state petroleum company that is both the mainstay of the Angolan economy, and the source of the elite’s extraordinary wealth.

Dos Santos’s next move is unclear. Some close to the government say it was important to him that after nearly 33 years in power, he should at last be legally elected, albeit indirectly. So according to one theory, will stand down in favour of Vicente in the next few years, giving his successor a chance to acquire the public profile that he currently lacks, before he stands for election in 2017. Yet Vicente has little standing in the party, and selling him to the Angolan public will not be easy. Much of the recent anger on the streets has been directed personally at Dos Santos’s long incumbency and the corruption of his regime. The succession of Vicente might deflect the accusation of never-ending tenure, but his well-known business links to Dos Santos ensure that no one is under any illusion about his capacity to change how the country manages its financial affairs. Others point out that number two is a dangerous place to be in Angolan politics. In a few years’ time Vicente could find himself made a scapegoat for government failings and cast aside, whereupon Dos Santos will declare himself ready to serve another term. So far, the veteran president’s continuation in office has depended on patronage offered to key individuals in the MPLA so as to keep the party machinery working in his favour. A realisation within the MPLA that neither Dos Santos nor Vicente represents an asset to the party at elections, alongside a newfound resolve by opposition parties and civil society not to let fraud go unchallenged, will make the calculations of power more difficult.

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