Angola: Elections at last
The MPLA will retain its dominance in the first elections since the end of the civil war but a new generation of politicians will enter parliament
The 5 September elections will help to determine whether Angola attains its potential as one of Africa’s leading powers. Eight million voters will pick 220 members of parliament as their representatives in the National Assembly, from among 5,198 candidates, ten parties and four coalitions 16 years after the last open election. Then, the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola lost and relaunched its civil war, which ended in 2002 with the killing of its veteran leader, Jonas Savimbi. Now, outside a few districts in UNITA’s Planalto heartland, the country is at peace and demanding prosperity.
The new-look Assembly is expected to approve a new constitution: the last constitutional law expired in 1992. This will provide the legal justification for President José Eduardo dos Santos to run for office again if, as expected, a presidential election is called next year. It will also decide important elements of executive power, such as whether provincial governors are elected or appointed, and if UNITA will be an effective bulwark against the hegemony of the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola.
Biometric electoral rolls
Despite the near exemplary peacefulness in which the pre-poll campaign has been conducted, Luanda’s wealthier denizens – including embassy staff and expatriates – have been stocking up on food, water and fuel. Yet election preparations have at times been impressive and Angola boasts the most advanced electoral roll in Africa, complete with electors’ biometric data.
Through the Plataforma Nacional da Sociedade Civil Angolana para as Eleições, civil society will observe polls for the first time, hoping to cover at least half of the 12,400 voting booths across the country. The PNASCAE will deploy some 3,000 observers and 500 ‘civic educators’. The delayed European Union (EU) observer mission will deploy 100 observers (40 longterm and 60 short-term) in addition to 200 observers from member-states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – so expect no vacancies in either the Hotel Trópico or Alvalade, Luanda’s best hotels. More observers will arrive from the Pan-African Parliament, the Lusophone Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa (CPLP) and diplomatic missions, including some from the United States.
The head of the EU observer mission, Luisa Morgantini, said in late August that the election campaign was proceeding calmly everywhere, with fair shares of airtime for the different parties on television and radio. Not everyone agrees.
In addition to a critical report in August from US-based Human Rights Watch on the uneven electoral playing field, opposition parties – UNITA, Frente Democratica Libertação Angola (FDLA), Partido Democrático para o Progreso de Aliança Nacional de Angola (PDP-ANA) and Frente para Democracia (FPD) – have written to the Comissão Nacional Eleitoral (CNE, National Electoral Commission) to express their concern about unbalanced media coverage. State-owned television, the Televisão Pública de Angola (TPA), provides five minutes of airtime a day for each of the 14 parties but broadcasts hour-long programmes on government achievements.
One Western diplomat told Africa Confidential that the government’s dominance of the media was ‘a huge issue… but compared to what’s gone on before, it’s all pretty good.’ Some critics carp that this sums up Western attitudes.
By law political parties can campaign only in the 30-day period prior to polling day. Critics point to the fact that the MPLA – with its monopoly access to the only national daily newspaper, TV channel and radio station – has campaigned since the beginning of the year (AC Vol 49 No 15). This has included large public parades and festivals, festooned in black, yellow and red, the MPLA party colours, and replete with posters of a grinning Dos Santos.
Potentially much more serious, according to urbane civil activist and journalist Rafael Marques, are the so-called ‘special ballots’ which the government has wheeled out for those without allocated polling stations. These electors will vote at their nearest polling booth, providing a copy of their identity papers, which will then be sent to special ‘scrutiny centres’ in provincial capitals, thereby increasing the chance of fraud. ‘These potential voters will also be scared as their ballot will contain a copy of their voter’s ID, so officials will know how certain people voted,’ Marques said. As AC went to press, several Luanda-based civil society members told us that most people they knew still hadn’t got an allocated polling booth. State media – Jornal de Angola and others – have been carrying advertisements advising people to check on the internet where they had to vote. Given that much of the country has no electricity, never mind a computer, this seems perverse.
The biggest threat to a successful vote is public apathy, resulting in a low turnout. In the 1992 elections, the turnout was an impressive 90% of registered electors but there are fears that with UNITA’s subsequent return to war, voting came to be associated with violence. A recent paper for Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) said: ‘Many prefer to stay away from the polling booths on election day. There is also the worry that fatalism – the belief that voting will not make a difference – could play a role.’
Given that opinion polls are prohibited, forecasting is tricky. Yet if voters won’t pay attention, investors will. The World Bank predicts that the economy, which has doubled in size every three years since 2002, according to the Finance Ministry, will grow by 20% this year, slowing to 11% in 2009 as oil production peaks at 2 million barrels per day (AC Vol 49 No 16). Oil expansion continues to gather pace; UK oil major BP recently received official approval for its giant US$10 billion PSVM development on the ultra-deepwater Block 31, where the company has already made 15 discoveries. Finance Minister José Pedro de Morais predicts 10% inflation by the end of 2008.
De Morais recently told the local press that he planned to request a sovereign credit rating from either Fitch, Standard & Poor’s or Moody’s: he expected a B+. Government itself has been using surplus petrocash to invest abroad, with a mooted $500 million bauxite project in Guinea-Bissau and state-owned oil company Sonangol purchasing stakes in major companies. Its subsidiary, Sonangol Finance, has reportedly contracted Britain’s Standard Chartered Bank to arrange a $2.5 bn. syndicated loan. The parent company is rumoured to be preparing a partial London listing.
The MPLA claims credit for public works all over Angola, promising one million low-priced homes and water for all. With inflation in double figures, the government is struggling to speed up the building of supermarkets, saying that development of this kind will create 12,000 jobs by 2012.
On the back of gushing EU and US diplomats’ comments on the government’s pre-election preparation, a successful poll will help Angola to expand its geopolitical clout. Having already surpassed Nigeria as sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest oil producer earlier this year, Angola is China’s biggest supplier of crude and the USA’s sixth biggest. In May, Nicolas Sarkozy became the first French President in a decade to visit the country, following the Angolagate arms deal scandal of the early 1990s (see Pointer). Meanwhile, the historically frosty relations between Dos Santos and Thabo Mbeki have thawed and the South African President recently visited Luanda following Angola’s chairmanship of the SADC Policy, Defence and Security body.
Often accused of lacking charisma, Dos Santos tries to show that deeds are stronger than words: on 22 August, he opened the Chicapa hydropower dam, built by the Russian diamond company Alrosa in Lunda Sul. In the UNITA territory of Huambo a few days later, he opened a road, a medical school and a technical college, then addressed some 150,000 MPLA supporters in Luanda, where his audience was swelled by the singing star Bonga, once a UNITA supporter, and beer at 33 US cents a can. The MPLA has not yet won its bet that it could assemble a million fans but nobody can rival its crowd-pulling power.
The MPLA has been winning over people from its rivals, such as former Information Minister Jorge Valentim, from UNITA, and some leaders of the small Partido Liberal Democrático in Namibe Province. Such haemorrhaging of support from the opposition has even affected normally sober independents, with the privately owned weekly Semanário Angolense recently publishing an editorial headlined ‘10 reasons why people should vote for the ruling MPLA party’.
UNITA focuses on good governance and democratisation. Its leader, Isaías Samakuva, often accuses the MPLA of allowing 0.5% of the population to own 90% of the wealth, while 68% of people live below the poverty line. ‘Corruption is institutionalised in Angola,’ he claims. His party still shows symptoms of ‘Africanism’, with xenophobic language that scares mixed-race and white citizens. Samakuva complains that 80% of gross domestic product is made by foreigners. UNITA also calls for a better balance between presidential and parliamentary powers, more checks and balances, a more liberal press law and greater infrastructure development in rural areas.
Despite boasting a surfeit of resources and a number of high-profile UNITA defections, it is not clear whether the MPLA will win an outright majority of seats. It will benefit because, unlike in 1992, it has been able to campaign in UNITA bastions such as Benguela, Bié, Huambo and Kuando Kubango. In urban constituencies, though, people worry more about corruption, which could help UNITA and small parties such as the FPD. In 1992, the Frente Nacional para a Libertação de Angola came second in Zaire Province, home of the Kongo people on whom the FNLA is based; today, the party is badly split.
So is the Partido Renovador Social (PRS), which in 1992 came second in Lunda Norte and Lunda Sul. Particularly volatile is the youth bloc: approximately 2.5 million 18-26 year-olds who are firsttime voters and whose political leanings are unclear. They are clustered mainly in towns and the MPLA is trying to win their support with promises of jobs and, at campaign rallies, outright bribery. Whether this will work is unclear, especially given the billions of petrodollars that have flowed through government coffers without much dividend for the teeming urban musseques (shanty towns). They could just as well stay at home.
In some UNITA strongholds, the MPLA organisers find it hard to forget their old habits of intimidation. Human Rights Watch says this applies in the Cabinda enclave, too. UNITA claims that one of its delegations was attacked with machetes, sticks and stones at Londuimbali in Huambo Province but Samakuva congratulated the police for scattering the attackers by firing into the air. UNITA’s parliamentary leader, Alcides Sakala, said the MPLA had injured nine of his party militants in Huambo. The party has also complained of attacks on several of its MPs in Benguela Province. With three other opposition parties, UNITA has complained about arrangements for recounting votes, fearing that ballot boxes could be stuffed while being transported by provincial election committees. Some diplomats have been irritated by a request that they should give the authorities three days’ notice of their travel plans.
For UNITA, the elections will prove a moment of truth. Despite more than six years of peace, it has struggled to shake off its former reputation as a ruthless guerrilla movement and establish itself as a credible alternative to the MPLA. Only substantial gains against the MPLA – highly unlikely according to analysts – will transform the opposition into an effective check on the government. Yet most expect the MPLA to attain its target of 70% of the Assembly, boosted by the defections of 16 rebel members from UNITA, enough to change the constitution. Despite the criticism levelled at UNITA leader Samakuva, a new leader can be elected only at the party’s quadrennial congress. The last one was in July 2007, so even if UNITA sustains heavy losses, Samakuva should be safe until 2011.
One certainty is that a new set of parliamentarians will emerge from these elections. Only 39% of MPLA MPs are standing again and the party wants to bring in younger people and women. UNITA has put up some non-political candidates. It looks as if the elections will be a success, which would both encourage potential investors and strengthen Angola’s standing in the world.
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Tuesday, 9 September 2008
Posted by MANUEL DE ARAÚJO at Tuesday, September 09, 2008