Angola's Elections: Watershed Moment or More of the Same?

  • photo courtesy of wikipedia
    Aug 31, 2012

    Angola is holding national elections for only the third time since the country gained independence in 1975 and the second time since the end of a decades-long civil war in 2002. The polls take place against a backdrop of growing frustration and expressions of popular discontent in a country widely seen as an emerging strategic player in Africa.

    The elections themselves are unlikely to hold big surprises. The ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) will retain a commanding majority in the country’s national assembly, and President José Eduardo Dos Santos, now in office for 33 years, will remain firmly in control. The last elections in 2008 gave the MPLA 191 of the national assembly’s 220 seats, with its principal rival, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), winning only 16 percent. The opposition may make a stronger showing this time around—a new coalition party, the Convergence for Angola’s Salvation–Electoral Coalition (CASA-CE), has joined UNITA to expand the ranks of challengers—but is unlikely to come close to undermining MPLA control. After presidential elections were postponed in 2009, a new 2010 constitution eliminated direct presidential elections, and whoever leads the majority party in the national assembly is now also head of state. Dos Santos heads the MPLA ticket, and Manual Vicente, former head of Angola’s national oil company Sonangol and currently minister of state for economic coordination, holds the number two position. Vicente, who will become vice president, is widely seen as the president’s successor designate.

    Opinion on Vicente is mixed. He is seen in some quarters as a competent technocrat and manager, who transformed Sonangol into a viable international concern and who may bring a more disciplined and strategic economic approach to the country’s leadership. But critics counter that Vicente oversaw one of Angola’s most corrupt institutions and benefited mightily from Sonangol’s opaque operations and accounting methods. He is also alleged to have had deep personal financial stakes in the sector he was tasked with regulating. Longtime MPLA stalwarts, who saw him as a political neophyte, reportedly balked at the choice. Members outside the president’s immediate inner circle complain that accession to the party leadership should be a more open, “democratic” process and that Dos Santos’s pick reflects his usurpation of the party apparatus. Many in this latter group and in the opposition see Vicente as someone who will protect the interests of the current president and preserve the status quo, from which he has profited considerably. Ultimately, there is no guarantee that Vicente will in fact succeed Dos Santos: two previous heirs apparent were subsequently dropped; and under the constitution, Dos Santos could in theory stay on until 2022.

    Whatever the uncertainties of an eventual succession scenario, the MPLA has ensured that it won’t face a serious electoral threat in these polls. Critics of the government are routinely harassed, intimidated, or arrested; the country’s main independent media outlets have been bought up by individuals with close ties to President Dos Santos; civil society organizations are carefully monitored and regulated; and the security forces and judiciary are firmly under presidential control. The political opposition has raised serious concerns about the electoral process itself: from the failure to audit or publicly release voter registration rolls, to the opacity of the vote tabulation and counting process, to the deployment of tens of thousands of police and military personnel to “maintain order” on Election Day.

    But if many Angolans feel a sense of fatalism about these elections, there are nonetheless strong indications that Angola is entering a new phase and that the country’s political dynamics—whatever the outcome of the polls—are likely to become more fluid and unpredictable in the years ahead. The last year has seen an increasing number of Angolans actively challenge the government in a spate of small but proliferating protests, unprecedented in the period since the war ended. A pro-democracy march in Luanda in March 2011 was the first in a series of demonstrations both in Luanda and provincial capitals mobilized around civil liberties, but also around basic services—lack of access to running water, ham-handed housing demolitions, inadequate wages.

    Demonstrations have not been driven solely by party politics; many participants in the Luanda protests have been children of MPLA elites, educated abroad, and frustrated by the lack of political and economic opportunity for those outside a narrow MPLA elite. MPLA war veterans, who staged mass protests in Luanda this summer to demand back pay of pensions and disability benefits, were forcibly dispersed by security forces with tear gas, truncheons, and gunfire.

    Political opposition has been energized by these growing expressions of popular discontent. UNITA, largely quiescent in the war’s immediate aftermath, has been emboldened and has been far more vocal and organized than in the 2008 electoral run-up, focusing much of its energy on strengthening its base in municipalities beyond the capital. A new coalition, CASA-CE, led by the former UNITA parliamentary leader Abel Chivukuvuku, is evolving as a more visible and forceful challenger. Chivukuvuku has successfully attracted several high-profile MPLA defectors, and he appeals to a younger generation with little memory of or allegiance to either the MPLA or UNITA. There are growing indications of disgruntlement within the ruling MPLA as well. Although few members will speak out publicly against the leadership (former prime minister Marcolino Moco is a prominent exception), in private, individuals will acknowledge frustration with the overweening privilege enjoyed by the president and his immediate family and a growing sense of disgust with the culture of conspicuous consumption that is prevalent among the ruling elites.

    Change is coming, many Angolans agree, but the full impact won’t be felt for another 5 or 10 years. Angolans have valued peace, and whatever its flaws, the MPLA government can be credited with putting a decisive end to a devastating war, sustaining the peace, and making massive investments in rebuilding the country’s shattered infrastructure and economy. The country, Africa’s second-largest oil producer, has enjoyed strong economic growth in the last decade. It has largely recovered from a downturn during the 2009 global economic crisis and is expected to post growth rates of close to 7 percent in 2012. But while the government may have enjoyed some post-conflict legitimacy, the social compact is beginning to unravel. In a country with one of the highest GDPs per capita in Africa, the disparities between rich and poor—glaringly evident in the country’s capital—and the lack of the most basic services for the majority of citizens will only accelerate that unraveling.

    In the next five years, a younger generation, born in the waning days of the war, with no particular affinity to the MPLA or UNITA will be entering their early 20s, looking for economic and political opportunity and demanding some benefit from the country’s massive wealth. The rise of social media has meant that Angolan youth are more connected to each other and to the outside world, and expectations and the ability to mobilize will continue to rise.

    The United States has, somewhat unsuccessfully, courted Angola as a strategic partner. Angola is an important source of U.S. oil imports, and its economic growth trajectory makes it a potentially powerful and influential continental player. But memories of U.S. support to UNITA during the war and a strong relationship with China, which does not press the government on issues of corruption or human rights, has meant that U.S. efforts have had only a lukewarm reception. If the United States wishes to build enduring ties in Angola, its best bet will be to engage the country’s younger generation in ways that are important and relevant to their aspirations. U.S. “soft power” has a role to play here, and educational exchanges and training—in engineering, telecommunications, business management, agro-business—technology transfer, private-sector outreach, and the like can go a long way in building partnerships of mutual long-term benefit. Angola’s youth will be the ultimate drivers of change, and the United States should begin investing now.

    Jennifer Cooke is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. She traveled to Angola in July 2012.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Jennifer G. Cooke