Angola goes to the polls tomorrow in presidential and legislative elections. Most authorities do not classify Angola as a democracy, and it’s easy to see why. It has been governed by the same party since independence in 1975, and incumbent João Lourenço is only the third person to serve as president. Nonetheless, he seems to be facing a genuine challenge.
Independence from Portugal was the cue for a civil war between the different nationalist groups, principally the Soviet-backed MPLA and the western-backed Unita. The MPLA soon got the upper hand and established a Leninist one-party state, with first Agostinho Neto and then José Eduardo dos Santos as president. But the war continued, with Unita controlling substantial areas of the country’s interior.
With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, dos Santos abandoned Marxism and in 1991 signed a peace agreement with Unita. Multi-party elections were held for the first time in 1992, but Unita (which lost) claimed that they were rigged and returned to armed struggle. Finally, in 2002, the death in combat of its leader, Jonas Savimbi, led to a permanent ceasefire and a focus on electoral competition.
Nonetheless, the MPLA retained a tight grip on the country, and dos Santos did not submit himself to another presidential election until 2012 (after the introduction of a new constitution), when he was re-elected with 71.8% of the vote. He stepped down after a five-year term – being then aged 75 – and was succeeded by Lourenço, who won the 2017 election with 61.1% against 26.7% for Unita’s candidate.
Since then, Angolan politics has become more interesting. The new president appears keen to distinguish himself from his predecessor and has tried to clean out some of the political establishment, attacking the corruption of the previous ruling family. The death of dos Santos in Spain just last month led to an unedifying dispute with his widow over where he should be buried.
But there is no sign so far of an improvement in human rights or a relaxation of political control. Tomorrow’s election will therefore be a major test. Lourenço is seeking re-election, with Adalberto Costa of Unita as his main opponent; several opinion polls have credited Costa with a substantial lead, but as Justin Pearce reports at the Conversation, there is concern that “once again … the election will lack credibility.”
Voting is first-past-the-post, with no preferences or second round, and votes count simultaneously for both president and legislature. The legislature is a mix of at-large list members and multi-member constituencies; the latter are very badly malapportioned, although there doesn’t seem to be a strong partisan bias at work.
It’s therefore vitally important for the opposition to concentrate its vote in a single ticket. Last year Unita announced an agreement with other parties to do just that, but it remains to be seen how effective it will be. Many reports suggest that voters are (understandably enough) pessimistic about the prospects of change and sceptical of their ability to have their voices heard.