Angolans go to the polls on 24 August to vote in parliamentary elections. The leader of the party with the most seats in parliament automatically becomes the president, so this is also in effect a presidential election.
This will be the fourth election since the end of the Angolan civil war in 2002. The three previous post-war polls were marked by a steady decline in the number of people voting for the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). In the last election, five years ago, the party’s share of the vote was down to 61% nationally, in contrast to 70% in the previous election according to the official tally.
Most worryingly for the ruling party, it came in with less than 50% of the vote in the capital, Luanda, a city that it historically regarded as a heartland.
The four main opposition parties issued a joint statement citing irregularities in the vote counting process and rejecting the election results. Days later, they decided instead to take up their seats and continue to participate in parliament. The sudden change earned criticism from civil society organisations that had also been angered by the irregularities in the vote tallying procedure.
The biggest concern, once again, is that the election will lack credibility.
A local polling service, AngoBarómetro, has predicted that in a fair competition, there would be an outright win for the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), the former armed movement that fought the MPLA in a 27-year war that ended in 2002.
Voter polling is a relatively new phenomenon in Angola so one cannot vouch for the reliability of the poll. However, it fits with the general downward trend in the MPLA’s electoral performance since 2008.
The 2017 election marked the resignation of President José Eduardo dos Santos, who had been in office since 1979. His lengthy tenure had become a focus of popular protest that had gathered pace in Angola since 2011, along with other issues such as unemployment, the high cost of living and growing inequality amid an oil boom. The boom had produced, at least on paper, dizzying growth figures between 2004 and 2014.
President João Lourenço took office amid the post-boom recession. His first move was to distance himself from Dos Santos. He lost no time in prosecuting some high-profile beneficiaries of the Dos Santos regime and nationalising their assets.
The goodwill generated by such measures, however, could not last long. Dos Santos’s electoral strategy had rested on associating himself with the arrival of peace in 2002, and blaming the country’s problems on the legacy of the war and more specifically on Unita. The MPLA’s declining share of the vote from 2008 onwards showed how that strategy was becoming ever less effective as the war receded into the past.
What is more, in previous elections the MPLA could count on the support of an emerging middle class that got used to a consumer lifestyle during the boom. Lourenço took office in the midst of a deep economic crisis, which has only got worse since he was elected.
Poverty is once again visible on the streets of Luanda, the capital, in the form of people scrounging for food in rubbish containers. Abandoned construction sites are a visible reminder of the bubble that burst. Even the middle class, whose expectations were raised during the oil boom, now struggle to buy basic necessities.
The 2022 election is the first in which citizens born after the war are old enough to vote. To this generation, the old slurs against Unita are meaningless. Even in traditional MPLA strongholds such as Malanje in north-central Angola, the party has battled to mobilise support at campaign rallies.
Lourenço has been more tolerant of criticism than his predecessor was, but the current regime still resorts to force when it feels challenged. In November 2020, a march in Luanda calling for the creation of jobs and the holding of long-delayed municipal elections was met by police with live ammunition.
In 2021 police also used force against protesters in Cabinda and Lunda Norte provinces.
The authorities have prevented civil society organisations from holding meetings in the run-up to the elections.
Marshalling the opposition
As the MPLA’s political capital has diminished, so the opposition has begun to look more credible. Unita, the main opposition party, began to broaden its social base during the 2010s, finding common cause with civil society and a growing protest movement particularly in Luanda – a city where for previous generations, voting for Unita would have been anathema.
The election to the party leadership of Adalberto Costa Júnior, 60, in 2019 marked a change of generation and image, and an effort to build the party’s support beyond its traditional bases in the interior.
In an attempt to gather together divided opposition votes, Unita is including on its electoral list candidates from outside the party. They include Abel Chivukuvuku, a former Unita official who enjoys a strong personal following and whose new PRA-JA party was denied registration, and Justino Pinto de Andrade, a well-known academic and liberation struggle veteran from a prominent MPLA family.
The MPLA, which still has a strong hold over the civil service and judiciary, has done its best to make life difficult for the opposition. Last year the constitutional court annulled the election of Costa Júnior as Unita leader, on the grounds that at the time of the party congress, he held dual Angolan-Portuguese nationality, even though he subsequently renounced the Portuguese citizenship that he had inherited from his father.
The composition of the electoral commission is dominated by government and MPLA appointees. As in previous years, state media during the campaign period have been giving disproportionate coverage to MPLA events and government projects associated with the MPLA. Unita has filed criminal complaints over breaches of the electoral law, of which the outcome remains uncertain.
Lourenço faces new challenges as he heads into his second term. The economy remains oil dependent and the country still depends heavily on imported food. So a recovery in global energy prices has been offset by an increase in food prices brought about by the war in Ukraine.
Discontentment over the ongoing issues of inequality and unemployment is likely to be sharpened in the wake of an election result that lacks legitimacy.
Justin Pearce (@drjustinpearce) is a Senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University.
This piece was published first by our friends at the Conversation. Click here to read it there.