Never has the ruling party faced as powerful an opposition as in the election due in August. But officials hope an oil bonanza will boost the party war chest
Falling living standards, mass unemployment and hunger mean the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) and its leader, President João Lourenço, face the first realistic chance since independence of losing an election.
The opposition is uniting behind the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola‘s (UNITA) leader since 2019, Adalberto Costa Júnior, at the head of the Frente Patriótica Unida (FPU) electoral alliance with two other major opposition parties with charismatic leaders.
Abel Chivukuvuku leads the new PRA-JA Servir Angola party, which still awaits approval from the Constitutional Court, and Bloco Democrático‘s (BD) Filomeno Vieira Lopes, who was previously part of the Convergência Ampla de Salvação de Angola – Coligação Eleitoral (CASA-CE) coalition. The three men will list from one to three in the coalition electoral lists.
An opinion poll by Angola’s most respected agency, Angobarometro, put the combined support of UNITA and BD at 64% of the popular vote in early February, 14 points higher than a year before – even without counting the still unauthorised PRA-JA. The MPLA polled at 28%, while Lourenço’s personal approval stood at a disastrous 26%, way behind the 56% commanded by the outspoken Costa Júnior.
President Lourenço was elected on the basis of ending the relentless pillaging of state assets by the MPLA elite during the 39 years President José Eduardo dos Santos was in power, but perceptions of corruption are little altered.
While the most notorious individuals and symbols of that period have been purged, the MPLA has proved reluctant to part with its privileges and with the economy in dire straits because of the decline in oil exports and prices, the government had little room for manoeuvre until the Ukraine war revived hopes for the industry.
In private, MPLA officials speak fondly of the Dos Santos boom years, and reminisce about the flow of massive oil income, infrastructure projects and easy credit. But the economy will be in a worse state come the August election than at any other election time since the end of the war with UNITA, 20 years ago.
What has not changed, to the opposition’s dismay, is the electoral system. The National Election Commission (CNE) is controlled by the MPLA and its nominee Manuel da Silva. The opposition tried to prevent his appointment and challenge the nomination in court, but without success.
The CNE has picked the same company to manage the vote-counting and tallying process, Spain‘s Indra Group, as in previous elections. UNITA claimed the count was fraudulent and made detailed complaints against Indra in 2017 (AC Vol 58 No 13, The ghost of elections past). The tender launched by CNE required bidders to have 10 years’ experience in elections in Southern African Development Community countries. Indra handled Angola’s elections in 2008, 2012 and 2017.
As soon as Indra Group was announced as the winner of the tender for electoral services UNITA announced it would challenge the award in the courts. Indra denies any role in electoral manipulation and has held electoral contracts in wealthy democracies, including the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy.
Foreign observers have monitored Angolan elections before, but this time the European Union has not been invited to send an Election Observer Mission, the bloc’s ambassador to Luanda, Jeanette Seppen, said. The EU may send an EOM only on the invitation of the host government.
The courts are another obstacle for the opposition. UNITA had to call another party conference to appoint Costa Júnior leader in December after the Supreme Court, which is run by the President’s former aide Laurinda Cardoso, ruled that his election at the 2019 UNITA congress was unlawful.
The new congress in December was also nearly annulled after the Supreme Court received a complaint by opponents to Costa Júnior within UNITA. That complaint is widely believed to have been a covert initiative by General José Tavares, a close friend of the President who coordinated security officials in previous elections to manage spoiler operations and propaganda against the opposition (AC Vol 58 No 13, The ghost of elections past).
But the move was halted after objections from senior MPLA members including Minister of State for Social Affairs Carolina Cerqueira, who has a pro-democracy reputation, according to party sources.
Spin to win
The media is also making the opposition’s job harder. Media that were previously privately owned – albeit by members of the MPLA elite – now belong to the state. Outlets like O País newspaper or TV Zimbo now do not differ in their coverage from the historic state media. And for the first time since before the pandemic struck in 2020, the state media has some good economic news to report. Angola with its gas and oil exports is likely to be a net winner in the otherwise grim prospects faced by most countries in the region.
The stock exchange in Luanda will finally start trading equities led by Banco BAI, the country’s biggest financial institution, which is due to offer 10% of its shares in an initial public offering. It’s all part of the government’s sweeping privatisation programme which is due to market 195 state assets, including the Sonangol oil company and the Endiama diamond company.
And the Treasury is confident enough that the windfall earnings from oil exports this year will be enough to finance the budget that it has dropped plans to float another billion-dollar Eurobond. For MPLA insiders, that may seem like a return to the golden era of untrammelled state spending. But the reality for most Angolans is sharply different – even if the state media tries to ignore that.
Angolan journalist Carlos Rosado de Carvalho recently took a straw poll of topics covered in the nightly news broadcast on the state-owned Televisão Pública de Angola (TPA) station and found over 90% of airtime was dedicated either to government or MPLA activities, while UNITA got about 1%.
But increasingly, Angolans get their news from independent online sources as smartphones become more common. Angobarometro reported that 63% of the sample polled do not believe there will be a free and fair election, which ‘demonstrates the lack of trust in the election bodies, calling into question their legitimacy that could, therefore, further weaken the country’s institutions.’
To many, the big question now is what the emboldened and confident opposition, and its followers among impoverished youth, will do if – or when – the MPLA foists yet another fraudulent election on the nation.
HOW RUSSIA’S WAR ON UKRAINE COULD TILT THE VOTE
Although western diplomats foresee the elections going the way of the previous manipulated polls, they are not speaking out. They fear that would drive President João Lourenço even further into Russian arms.
Angola abstained from the 2 March UN General Assembly vote condemning the Russian invasion, despite coming under heavy pressure from the United States and the European Union. Most of the MPLA military and political elite was trained and educated in the former Soviet Union and they fondly recall the decisive support of Cuba and the Soviet Union in their Cold War confrontations with UNITA under Jonas Savimbi and South Africa‘s apartheid regime in the 1970s and 1980s.
One senior western diplomat in Luanda told Africa Confidential about the risks of pushing Angola too hard. The EU now desperately needs Angolan oil and gas to replace supplies from Russia and the government is aware of the extra leverage it now has. Before the war Angola was crying out in vain for more western investment. Everything has changed now.
On 20 April Italy‘s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio visited Luanda to strike an oil deal. Germany is also turning to Luanda, although the position is complicated by the fact that over half of Angola’s oil exports currently go to China to pay off loans.
Westerners are recalling that the Angolan President never claimed to be a pro-western democrat. Asked to name his influences when he was first elected, the name of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sprang to his lips. And he personally bestowed President Vladimir Putin with Angola’s highest honour, the Order of Agostinho Neto. Previous recipients include Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro.
Like Putin and Fidel, Lourenço has been rebuilding the MPLA in his own image, especially after the ‘fight against corruption’ led to a ‘cleansing’ of the party’s main bodies, including the Politburo and the Central Committee in the 2021 Congress.
In the name of ‘rejuvenation’ and ‘gender parity’, ageing party leaders and cadre with liberation struggle credentials have been replaced with young people with no distinct ideology who are mostly interested in the material benefits that come with party membership, such as jobs in state institutions, one MPLA veteran complained.
Now that the oil-centred economy is picking up again in the wake of the Ukraine war, and the MPLA is under firm control and the stage is set for electoral manipulation, confidence in Lourenço’s circles in victory in August has been growing.
Lourenço himself has set the party the goal of increasing the 2017 vote and reversing a trend of decline in MPLA support.