With the post-war generation playing an increasingly active part in Angolan elections, the dominance of the MPLA is being challenged. Is the era of the liberation party over?
Ten months ago, Angolans voted in the fourth election since the end of the civil war in 2002. In each of those elections, the vote share of the ruling MPLA (the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) has diminished by about ten percentage points.
The MPLA is one of five southern African parties that have remained in power since the end of white rule, and which assert their right to rule based on a particular story about national liberation: the others are Mozambique’s Frelimo (in power, like the MPLA, since 1975), Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF (since 1980), Namibia’s SWAPO (since 1990) and South Africa’s ANC (since 1994).
These regional similarities notwithstanding, Angola’s story, of course, has its own peculiarities. Angola’s first multiparty election, in 1992, was the product of American-led diplomacy aimed at ending a civil war between the MPLA (under the command of José Eduardo dos Santos) and its rival liberation movement, UNITA – a conflict that had become embroiled in the politics of the Cold War.
The election went ahead although neither the MPLA nor UNITA was prepared to acknowledge its opponent as a legitimate player in a rule-bound game. An UN-supervised disarmament process was inadequately resourced, both antagonists maintained fighting men under partisan control, and the country was again at war by early 1993.
In the late 1990s, the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA) expelled UNITA from its last redoubts in provincial towns and conducted a counterinsurgency campaign that targeted rural populations in areas still under UNITA influence. With his military all but destroyed, UNITA’s founder, Jonas Savimbi, was killed by FAA soldiers in February 2002.
It was another six years before a state that was now indistinguishable from the MPLA, and in control for the first time of the entire national territory, attempted another election, which was in every sense the continuation of war by other means. Dos Santos used the end of the armed conflict to revive his political career, branding himself the ‘architect of peace’ – a claim that chimed with a MPLA discourse that associated UNITA, and the opposition in general, with the threat of a return to bloodshed.
Partisan security forces and civil servants, and traditional leaders enjoying government patronage, enforced Dos Santos’ message. UNITA’s leaders battled to refashion the now disarmed movement into a civilian political party. The result: 81% for the MPLA and barely 10% for UNITA.
If 2008 represented a low point for UNITA and the opposition more generally, subsequent polls have been marked by a steady decline in the MPLA vote share: 70% in 2012, according to official figures, and 61% in 2017. This was despite circumstantial evidence that the poll had been rigged in favour of the ruling party.
Also remarkable about the 2017 election was the absence of Dos Santos. In power since 1979, Dos Santos had first hinted at resignation in 2001, but instead consolidated his power on the back of the wartime victory and enhanced his already considerable fortune thanks to the oil boom that coincided with the first decade of peace. But by 2015 it was an open secret that the president had cancer.
Yet there was no obvious successor who would have the trust of the MPLA and the security establishment, and who might also look after the multibillion-dollar business interests that the presidential family had acquired during the boom. Rehabilitating João Lourenço, a military general and former MPLA secretary general who had fallen out with Dos Santos in the early 2000s, seemed like the least bad compromise.
Having won the 2017 election, Lourenço realised that the best way to gain some popular appeal was by distancing himself from the predecessor who had appointed him. He lost no time in bringing corruption charges against beneficiaries of the Dos Santos regime, notably the former president’s daughter Isabel and son José Filomeno.
This, however, bought only temporary goodwill, particularly as the public realised that the MPLA had no answer to the deepening poverty that had followed the oil price crash in 2014. It wasn’t only about the poorest. The MPLA had enjoyed the support of a new middle class that had got used to a consumer lifestyle during the boom years – and which after 2014 was struggling to pay basic bills.
At the same time, the stories about the war that had served the MPLA so well in 2008 meant less and less as a generation came of age for which the war was ancient history. UNITA, meanwhile, had confronted the need to move beyond its old support base in the interior of the country, and found common cause with a youth-led urban protest movement that grew steadily from 2011 onwards.
The 2022 election was the first in which people born after the war could vote. UNITA ran for the election as part of a ‘Patriotic Front’ that included on its electoral list several prominent critics of the government who previously had no connection with UNITA. The result, 51% for the MPLA and 44% for the UNITA-led front.
The elected thus demonstrated both the weaking of the MPLA and the consolidation of the opposition into a single political force. UNITA now gained a plurality of votes in Luanda, testimony to its ability to transcend its historical origins and capitalise on grievances in the vast capital city about inequality, poverty, and unemployment. UNITA also took the coastal oil-producing provinces of Cabinda and Zaire.
The MPLA held all the interior provinces – including, perhaps ironically, UNITA’s historic heartlands of Huambo and Bié. The marginalisation of these provinces by the oil economy has left their populations dependent on civil service salaries, which, given the lack of distinction between party and state, are an important electoral resource for the MPLA.
A voting system with both national and provincial circuits gives less populous provinces disproportionate weight in parliament, so that the MPLA still holds 124 of the 220 seats in the National Assembly, though the 90 ‘Front’ MPs have allowed more vigorous parliamentary debate.
While the 2022 election served to loosen the MPLA’s grip on parliament, the same is not true for local government. Administrators at provincial, municipal and communal level are appointed directly from Luanda. Statements of intent by the government to introduce local elections have been followed by postponement into the ever more distant future.
If the MPLA’s vote share continues its downward trend, it will have lost its majority by the next scheduled poll in 2027. The party retains the means to manipulate the vote and it is not certain whether it would accept even a clear electoral mandate in favour of an opposition party.
With all of Southern Africa’s ‘big five’ liberation parties still in power, there is no precedent on which to speculate about the MPLA’s possible exit from power. Conversely, a change of party in Angola would provide some useful pointers to how things might develop elsewhere in the region.
Dr Justin Pearce, email, is a senior lecturer in history at Stellenbosch University, an experienced journalist, and a research associate with the Centre for Research on Democracy (CREDO).