At the end of September, Angolans went to the polling stations for the third time in their history. The first elections, in 1992, ended up in a bitter civil war; those of 2008 did not bring conflict, but highlighted the chasm between those in power and the majority of the population. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has been in power since 1975, while President Dos Santos is at the helm since 1979. There was little doubt that the ruling elite would relinquish power easily. In the months prior to the elections, dos Santos toured the country unveiling flashy infrastructure projects. The MPLA said it wanted Angola to “grow more and distribute better” and used private as well as state media to portray the opposition as the destroyer of the country in wartime, Dos Santos as the architect of peace and the MPLA as the only force repairing the damage done by war.
Yet, the MPLA could nothing before the opposition’s determination to rush in change. The opposition – especially the historical UNITA and CASA-CE (Convergência Ampla de Salvação de Angola), a new party founded by UNITA veteran Abel Chivukuvuku – challenged the Electoral Commission’s (CNE) plan to alter the tallying procedures in a way that put crucial stages of the process out of the sight of observers. On the eve of the elections, CASA-CE activists protested outside the electoral commission headquarters. Several, including a parliamentary candidate, were arrested and held in police custody over the weekend that followed the elections.
This new role by opposition parties seems to have drawn inspiration from the unprecedented political ferment of the last eighteen months. March 2011 saw the first of a succession of street protests calling for President dos Santos to step down and for a wider distribution of wealth and opportunity. The protests were initiated by young people not aligned with any political party. They see themselves as civic rather than political activists. The movement survived brutal attacks by police and thugs supported by the MPLA, and cut a new role for themselves during the election. In fact, opposition parties and civil society kept vigil, recording all irregularities of the exercise. With hundreds of observers around the country, they recorded all the polling stations manned only by delegates from the MPLA, cases of abuse from polling officers, and the names of those who were prevented to vote on flimsy excuses.
Supported by the positive reports from foreign observers and in control of State and private media, the MPLA easily got rid of the opposition’s claims of irregularities. However, the MPLA is now aware that it will be more difficult to control the elections in future. Official results leave the MPLA with almost 72% of the vote: a terrific result by any normal standards, but ten percentage points down compared to 2008. UNITA doubled its take to 19% from 10% last time. CASA-CE, a first-time contender, gained third place with 6%.
The MPLA must now worry for other telling signs. Less than 60% of registered voters in Luanda went to the polling station. The opposition gathered the preference of 40% of Luanda’s voters, when the capital has long been a MPLA stronghold. Luandans enjoy access to a greater range of media than the rest of the country, and a freedom of thought and discussion that in rural areas is stifled by chiefs in the pay of the ruling party. Facing the degradation of their city and the lack of infrastructures, Luanda’s inhabitants are disillusioned and have little sympathy for the MPLA’s scare-stories about the opposition. They are now talking openly about corruption, poverty, electoral malpractice, and about their expectations of government.
The MPLA has reduced its influence on people but remains firmly in power. All the same, to keep a leading position in the country, the government will have to focus on development, sharing of resources and a smooth change of leadership at the top. While Angola’s banks are conquering other markets, notably in Portugal, most of the population lives below the poverty line. There are no new jobs and few economic opportunities for the impoverished urban population. Agriculture is also suffering from the lack of investments. The economic life of the country is controlled by a few, with dos Santos’s family taking the lion’s share. No one is allowed to start a new business without the implicit permission of dos Santos.
The government has spent a vast sum of money in infrastructures, some quite useless, but little in human and social development. It will now have to focus on mass education and mass employment, this is the only way to plan long term changes and improve people’s lives. The MPLA has produced good policies, but it was never able to implement them. A party that controls all levels of administration and uses the state machinery to keep people away from development, cannot, at the same time, promote change. Angolan system of governance needs to become more efficient, allowing for accountability of politicians and public managers.
President dos Santos is 70 years old, and has been in power since 1979. He is aware that his time to leave office has come, as he is aware that he is liable to be attacked as soon as he will no longer be the president. In the past three decades, dos Santos has accumulated vast riches, mostly in illegal ways. This is why he nominated Vice-president Manuel Vicente, who should protect dos Santos from corruption charges upon leaving office. Unfortunately for the strong man of Luanda, Manuel Vicente has proved unpopular among the MPLA’s elite. It is also improbable that Vicente will be able to steer the political currents and win core support amongst party and population. MPLA infighting could easily bring instability, and perhaps a change of government faster than expected.