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MPLA decisive victory: Angola's legislative elections on 5 September saw the ruling MPLA win a landslide victory with 81.64% of the vote, reducing the opposition to a residual political force. The main opposition party, UNITA, managed to get a mere 10.39% of the vote and 16 parliamentary seats. What does his portend for the future of democracy in the country? Asks Paula Roque in Luanda.

There was never any doubt that the MPLA would win the parliamentary election, but what was uncertain was whether it would secure a two-thirds majority, given the composition of the young electorate, the disillusionment felt by the impoverished majority, the increase in conflicts over land between slum dwellers and developers, and the increasingly visible accumulation of wealth by the ruling elite that is extravagantly paraded in Luanda.

Many skilled Angolans and the small middle class outside the mainstream of the politically privileged were also disillusioned with the government. Given this unpredictability, especially in Luanda where 21% of the electorate live, the MPLA created the necessary conditions to guarantee an overwhelming victory -through the manipulation of the media, the intimidation of the opposition, a nationwide campaign to install fear in the population, an "organised" disorder of voting in the capital Luanda, and the co-opting of local authorities.

Despite the cloak of legitimacy provided by reforms to improve the country's international image, including measures concerning fiscal transparency and the rapid rehabilitation of infrastructure, the control and heavy-handedness with which the government prepared its certain victory leaves questions about the prospects for democracy and inclusive prosperity.

The parliamentary election was the first to be held since 1992 when the ruling MPLA won 53% of the vote, and 129 legislative seats. This time the MPLA took its tally to 81.64% of the vote and 191 seats in the 220-seat parliament. Its nearest rival, UNITA, received only 10.39% of the vote and 16 seats in parliament, as against 34% of the vote and 70 seats in 1992.


Ten parties and four coalitions competed in the September election, including the parties that have had representatives in parliament for the last 16 years: the Social Renovation Party (PRS), National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), the Liberal Democratic Party (PLD), the Democratic Renewal Party (PRD), the Party of the Alliance of Youth, Workers and Farmers (PAJOCA), Front for Democracy (FPD), and the Democratic Party for Progress-Angolan National Alliance (PDP-ANA).

The FNLA, the third liberation movement in the country, has become a small political force despite its important history. It has been weakened by internal factionalism exacerbated by the death of its founder, Holden Roberto, in August 2007. Of the smaller parties, only three now have any presence in parliament--the PRS with 8 seats, the FNLA 3 seats, and the ND 2 seats. President Jose Eduardo dos Santos's party will now be able to change the constitution (if it wants) and govern without having significantly to engage in political debate with the opposition or civil society. From a theoretical perspective, a victory on this scale is hardly conducive to the promotion of democracy in Angola. Because peace came only as a consequence of the military defeat of UNITA in 2002, there has been little incentive for the MPLA government to address the root causes of the protracted civil conflict or to promote true reconciliation through the integration of the defeated, and promote broad-based political debate in order to create the conditions for transparent, just and accountable governance.

And the government needed to establish its democratic credentials with the international community, an important aspect for President Dos Santos, who is concerned about his place in Angola's history. It was important for the government to hold elections in 2008 because further delay would have harmed its international credibility, national legitimacy and, by extension, the historic legacy of Dos Santos himself.


This election was also intended to augment Angola's claims to the status of a regional power, and an important and respected economic partner. However, whether this over whelming victory over the opposition will persuade the government to promote sustainable socio-economic development as well as free and democratic institutions must be in doubt.

However, there were high expectations as the population became more politically engaged, manifesting a sense of civic duty and an eagerness to participate in national politics. Over 40% of them voted for the first time, having been too young in 1992. The turnout was high, 87.36% or 7.2 million of the 8 million registered voters. Many were, therefore, disappointed as the opposition was crushed. A presidential election has been fixed for next year.

Bad times

In 1992, the race for the presidency was much closer, with President Dos Santos receiving 49. 6 % of the vote to Jonas Savimbi's 40%. Because neither managed to get a majority, a second round was required to be held within 30 days. This never happened, as UNITA and other opposition parties claimed that irregularities had rendered the elections invalid.

The negotiations to peacefully resolve the impasse broke down on 31 October 1992 when government troops and the Rapid Intervention Police (known as the Ninjas) staged a brutal crackdown on the UNITA leadership, and the MPLA's Jovem Justiceiros carried out what is now popularly called the "Halloween Massacre" of UNITA supporters in Luanda.

The post-electoral war took on cruel and merciless dimensions, resulting in the killing of more than 300,000 Angolans between 1992-94, in political purges, revenge killings, and ethnic cleansing in cities and villages throughout the country. Thousands of Ovimbundu and Bakongo people were killed by government troops, and later UNITA began purging populations thought to be supportive of the MPLA. Subsequent years witnessed a remilitarisation of society, attacks on the civilian population by both UNITA and the MPLA, an aggravation of the culture of impunity, and UNITA's capture of 70% of the national territory, leading to the conversion of its guerilla forces into a conventional army.

In response, the government created the Organisation of Civil Defence (ODC) by arming the civilian population. Between 1992 and 1994, UNITA troops retook the provinces of Huambo and Bie from government forces and proceeded to murder informers and supporters of the MPLA. Families disappeared, communities turned on each other, and for the first eight months of the occupation, the population was living on the brink of starvation. Today, the people from the Highlands who remember the cruelty displayed by UNITA recount this--a past the party's new leadership has been unable to comprehend or address. Notwithstanding a professed will to negotiate, UNITA and the government continued to purchase large quantities of arms and continued to engage in sporadic but intense fighting. In April 1997, a Government of Unity and National Reconciliation (GURN) was inaugurated, but the country remained physically and psychologically divided. Savimbi's access to diamonds, and Dos Santos's access to oil, provided the wherewithal to continue fighting. In December 1998, a peace accord signed in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, in 1994 was formally broken when government forces recaptured the politically symbolic rebel strongholds of Andulo and Bailundo in the province of Huambo. This postponed indefinitely the option of negotiation, and Dos Santos now sought to remove Savimbi from the political scene, destroy UNITA militarily, and create a more manageable and compliant opposition.


The war that ravaged the country from 1998 until 2002 was fought with even greater brutality and destructive weapons. It displaced over four million people because of the scorched-earth tactics used by the government. Peace finally came in February 2002 after UNITA's top leadership, including Jonas Savimbi, was ambushed and killed in the province of Moxico.

A Memorandum of Understanding signed in March 2002 by UNITA and MPLA established an amnesty law for all crimes committed during the conflict, and provided for some 5,000 UNITA soldiers to be integrated into the Angolan armed forces. As a result of the military defeat and the severe blow to the political structures of UNITA, the party was drastically weakened and its power to negotiate was reduced to compliance with government requests and demands. With 90,000 soldiers and their 400,000 family members disarmed, UNITA struggled to redefine itself as a civilian organisation and needed quickly to fill the void left by the death of founder-president Jonas Savimbi.

In 2003, both the MPLA and UNITA held their first postwar party congresses, reaffirming Dos Santos's presidency of the MPLA, and transferring power from UNITA's interim leader General Paulo Lukamba "Gato" to his victorious rival in the party presidential elections, Isaias Samakuva. GURN defined a powersharing agreement between UNITA and MPLA as a result of the Lusaka Protocol (1994), and the arrangement stayed in force until the recent election. This was hailed at the time as an important concession on the part of the MPLA though it also benefited the ruling party. Since UNITA has been part of the GURN, which left it in the ambiguous position of being associated with the government and also trying to play the role of the principal opposition party, this arrangement undermined UNITA's autonomy and credibility and provided the government with an opportunity to neutralise it on both fronts: as an opposition party and as part of the government.

In the eyes of the public, UNITA members within GURN allegedly were just as corrupt and incompetent as some other members of government and were looked upon in this light by the general public. This seems to be one of the factors that weakened UNITA's position for the September election--its inability to define its national strategy that would classify it as an alternative political force.

Since 1997, UNITA had headed three ministries: commerce, tourism and health. It had five deputy ministers: finance, defence, social reinsertion, agriculture and information (although in reality in each of the ministries there were the equivalent of one or two MPLA deputy ministers, which reduced the role of UNITA's representative to that of administrator). The governors of Cuando Cubango, Uige and Lunda Sul were also from UNITA, as were the deputy governors of Kwanza Sul, Benguela, Huambo, Bie and Luanda.


The life of GURN has now been terminated by the recent election, and the implications of this are serious. UNITA and other smaller parties who had been members of the power-sharing government for the last 11 years will no longer have any part in governing the country.

MPLA and the presidency

The presidency today is the most powerful institution in Angola, where Jose Eduardo dos Santos is not only the head of state, but also the president of the party, the commander in chief of the armed forces, and the main "advisor" to all other areas involved in the running of the country.

For the last 33 years, Dos Santos has kept the MPLA and the government in check by expanding a highly efficient system of patronage, through which incentives are provided to a loyal elite, some of whom (politicians, family members, and the military) have amassed immense personal fortunes. After the end of the war in 2002, the MPLA proceeded to recruit new members, in particular in those areas that had been traditional strongholds of UNITA, such as Huambo, and Bie. Out of the national population of 16 million, the MPLA has 2.8 million active members.

Following indications that the felt uncertain of achieving a clear victory at the ballot box, Dos Santos began to reshuffle his immediate entourage: he dismissed his chief of intelligence and reinforced the Cuanhama-dominated presidential guard with Cubans in late 2007.

In July 2008, the Council of Ministers, as opposed to parliament, approved a total of $17m for the electoral campaign of all 10 political parties and four coalitions. This was a violation of the electoral law, which determined that funding should be provided at least 90 days before the election date. In this regard, the ruling MPLA was at an advantage since it controlled all the state resources, including the media, the treasury and public institutions.

The onset of peace in 2002 allowed the Angolan media to overcome some of the challenges to its transformation into a forum for public debate, but it continues to be seen as a vehicle for political rhetoric. The state controls the main media outlets: the Angop news agency, the newspaper Jornal de Angola, the public television station Televisao Publica de Angola and the national Radio Nacional de Angola that serves as the MPLA's mouthpiece.

The private press is reduced to a small number of newspapers, which circulate essentially only in the capital Luanda, and two radio stations that cannot broadcast outside the capital. Throughout the war, the media was used as an ideological and military weapon reporting on important victories, concealing serious defeats, and was used to improve troop morale.

During the run-up to the September election, the state media, the only outlets with a national coverage, intensified its coverage in favour of the MPLA, curbing any possibility of diversity and pluralism of opinion. According to international election observers, this monopoly was one of the elements that threatened the fairness of the entire process. Yet, on 5 August when campaigning began, each party had been allotted five minutes per day on radio and TV, in accordance with the principle of equality of treatment by the media.

Radio is the most effective form of communication and access to information in Angola, given the high illiteracy rate and the level of poverty in the provinces, but all independent radio stations have been either shut down, had their broadcast range restricted, or have been silenced in some other way. In July 2008, UNITA's Radio Despertar was ordered off the air for six months for allegedly extending its signal 400 km beyond the capital city. The Catholic Church's Radio Ecclesia, one of the most outspoken media outlets, has, since 1978, (the date when it began suffering restrictions by the MPLA) fought to broadcast nationally and on FM. In November 2003, the Ministry of Information cautioned the church against broadcasting in the provinces, indicating that any attempt to do so would be an affront to the law and the state. The result was that during the recent election, the only information circulating throughout the country was controlled and manipulated by the MPLA, benefiting the ruling party by promoting all the new construction projects, and affirming that the only party prepared to rule was the MPLA.

The economy

Economic mismanagement and endemic corruption has prevented the majority of the population from benefiting from the rapid economic growth propelled by the oil industry and the exploitation of other natural resources. It is estimated that more than $ lbn in oil revenue disappears every year, an example of how opaque and inefficient the public finance system is.

Transparency International ranks Angola 147 out of 180 countries in the 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index. Disparities in wealth make Angola one of the most unequal countries in the world, ranking 16 from the bottom (at 162 out of 177) in the UNDP's Human Development Index for 2007.

Improvement in key social sectors has been negligible outside the three main cities with large percentages of the population, in particular in the semi-urban areas of Luanda. Angolans have seen little significant change since the end of the war in 2002 and the majority find themselves living in poverty. Subsistence farming accounts for 85% of livelihoods.

The economic boom propelled by the oil industry has not been used to address the level of extreme poverty in the country, which contrast starkly with the $41 bn in oil revenues in 2007. During the election campaign, the government made ambitious promises of fighting poverty, creating jobs, building one million new homes, and fighting corruption. It will now be put to the test to see if it delivers on these promises.

The observer missions from the EU and the Pan-African Parliament highlighted several flaws in the electoral process, although they praised the peaceful manner in which they were conducted. The patience and civility demonstrated by the population, and the absence of violence, were quite extraordinary considering how tense the preceding days had been and how real the possibility of unrest. Concerns were raised about the composition of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) and its ability to serve as an impartial mediator, as eight of its 11 members were from the MPLA or government institutions.


The NEC, chaired by Caetano de Sousa, who also chaired the 1992 elections, was composed of two members nominated by the president, three from the ruling party, three from the opposition parties, one Supreme Court justice, one Ministry of Territorial Administration representative, and one elected by the National Council of Social Communication. In practice, the structure of the NEC was the same in all 164 municipalities in the 18 provinces, and therefore heavily lopsided towards the MPLA. There was chaos on voting day in the capital Launda, forcing the NEC to schedule a second day of voting on 6 September. This prompted the opposition to cry foul. UNITA went as far as asking for a re-run in eight days and said it would submit an application to the courts to impeach the elections. The PRS, FNLA, and PDP-ANA also voiced their concerns, stating that the disorganisation in the capital was purposely created, especially in the highly-populated neighbourhoods that were opposition strongholds like Quilamba Quiaxe, Sambizanga, Viana, Ramiros, Palanca and others. UNITA accused the government of deliberately creating this chaos in the areas where the MPLA was not expected to win a majority. According to the civil society group, Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA), "the systems put in place at great expense for voting day seemed to fall apart even before polling began, with many voters, particularly in Luanda, unable to cast their vote". The NEC said 320 polling stations out of the 2,584 in Luanda did not open on 5 September because ballot papers and voter-register lists were not delivered. However, some of the polling stations were opened on 6 September.

"Problems were also caused by the panic decision by the NEC on 2 September to allow people to vote anywhere within their own municipality rather than at named polling stations as previously agreed. The NEC only received the voters register in an appropriate form from the government on 17 August, as opposed to the legal requirement of 26 July," ACTSA reported.

As one of the two top oil-producers in sub-Saharan Africa, Angola and, by extension, the ruling MPLA, have considerable diplomatic clout related directly to its economic power, its pragmatic approach of diversifying its development partners, and the strength and size of its military.

The government's strategy to ensure its survival and international relevance revolves around its pragmatic approach of normalising relations with countries it previously did not engage with, as in the case of the US, France and others. The country's main bargaining power resides in its natural resources.

The power of oil, diamonds, and other resources has allowed Angola to broker significant cooperation agreements with donors as diverse as China, Brazil, India and Europe. China in particular, with its liquidity and willingness to invest in infrastructure projects and extend credit lines without political conditionalities, has increased Luanda's sense of invincibility.

Regionally, Luanda aims to play a larger role in defining the political, economic and security landscape of Southern Africa, in a direct bid to secure its interests and as an alternative to South Africa's hegemony.
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Title Annotation:ANGOLA
Author:Roque, Paula
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6ANGO
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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