Angola’s elections: the politics of no change

Lara Pawson
23 September 2008

President José Eduardo dos Santos is a modest man. He vowed his country's first elections since 1992 would be an example to Africa, when in truth they have proved to be substantially more. They have provided the world with a master-class on how to hold apparently democratic elections, annihilate the opposition and regress to a one-party state - and still gain the quiet approval of the west, among others.

Lara Pawson is Writing Fellow at the Wits Institute of Social & Economic Research, at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her blog is here

Also by Lara Pawson in openDemocracy:

" Angola: the politics of exhaustion" (2 March 2007)

" Angola: worlds in collision" (11 April 2007)

Also on Angola in openDemocracy:

Ben Schiller, " The China model" (20 December 2005)

Gustaf Silfverstolpe, " Angola: time to choose" (25 September 2007)

The Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola / MPLA) swept up nearly 82% of the national vote, which translates into 191 of the national assembly's 220 seats. Among those who will be raising MPLA hands in the new parliament are a former air-hostess turned first lady, Ana Paula Dos Santos, and one of her daughters, a mogul in the small but politically powerful Angolan media industry, Welwitchia Dos Santos Pêgo "Tchizé".

The MPLA has thus vanquished its former civil-war enemy, the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola / Unita), which took a little over 10% of the vote and whose parliamentary presence has drained away from seventy to just sixteen seats. Even in its former provincial heartlands of Huambo and Bié, this once mammoth opposition movement won just 13.5% and 18.25% respectively. Three other parties scraped less than 6% of the votes between them, allowing them each a share of the remaining thirteen parliamentary seats.

Of the nine other parties that contested the election, eight did so badly that they will technically become extinct. This is a poke in the eye to all those who, while never doubting the MPLA would win, queried its capacity to score an absolute majority and thereby earn the democratic right to do as it wishes with the constitution.

State and party

So how has an intensely authoritarian regime, which has held on to power with sometimes astounding brutality since independence in 1975, managed to win such a huge victory in a multiparty ballot? This too in a country where the average person can't expect to live beyond 40, where a quarter of children don't make it past their 5th birthday, and where two-thirds live below the poverty-line despite the country's huge income as Africa's biggest oil producer. Why in such circumstances would people reward their government?

A part of the answer is simple: the electoral process was excessively unfair. The body tasked with ensuring freedom and transparency, the National Electoral Commission (CNE), comprised eleven members, eight of whom were either selected by the president himself or by senior members of the ruling party. Another key organisation, whose jobs included registering voters and deciding on locations of polling stations, was the Inter-Ministerial Commission for the Electoral Process (CIPE). Like the CNE, the CIPE was stuffed with MPLA members including its chair, Virgílio Fontes Pereira, who was not only the minister for territorial administration but an MPLA candidate in the elections. He retained his seat.

All fourteen of the competing parties were entitled to a share of $17 million provided for electoral campaigning; yet the money was distributed only on 8 August, three days after campaigning officially kicked off. The finance minister blamed the parties for failing to provide bank-account details, an accusation denied by many in opposition. But even if the money had come a week early, these small parties would have stood no chance against the MPLA, which has had the state at its service for thirty-three years. A weekly newspaper that is sympathetic to the MPLA estimated that the party spent $300 million campaigning before 5 August.

Also on African politics and elections in openDemocracy:

Gilles Yabi, "Guinea: a state of suspension" (28 February 2007)

Godwin Nnanna, " Democracy in Nigeria: the road less travelled" (28 March 2007)

Gérard Prunier, " Kenya: roots of crisis" (7 January 2008)

Gerard J DeGroot, " Rwanda: the colour of hope" (30 April 2008)

openDemocracy, "Zimbabwe's election: an African appeal" (20 June 2008)

But it is probably impossible to calculate the MPLA's campaign budget accurately. Four months before election-day, a provincial government official begging anonymity told me: "The campaign has already started. We've been giving them cars and houses and motors for months. Months! Even people who never thought the MPLA could buy them have been bought. Everyone wears those caps now, and those T-shirts - even diehard Unita members. The other parties don't know what they're doing!"

Nowhere was this imbalance more evident than on the state-owned Televisão Pública de Angola (TPA). Since the end of 2007, screens have been awash with crude MPLA propaganda showing halls packed with men and women wearing baseball-caps and T-shirts in party colours of red, yellow and black. They are shown in their hundreds waving the party flag, which so closely resembles the national flag they are almost indistinguishable at a glance. TPA censorship became so bad this year that one of its most loyal employees, Ernesto Bartolomeu, spoke out at a public meeting against the doctoring of news. He was abruptly stopped from presenting the flagship evening news programme and suspended until October, one month after the elections.

In the last few days before the election, a reporter with the international news agency Agence France-Presse noted that the president had appeared on the front cover of the country's only daily and only national newspaper, the state-owned Jornal de Angola, "every day for at least a week". In each shot, he was pictured opening yet another public building surrounded by yet more party officials dressed in yet more party clothes. Some say this is democracy at work - knowing its future rests in the choice of the people, the MPLA has finally started building clinics, schools and roads - while others insist it is political propaganda that very consciously demonstrates that the Angolan state is indistinguishable from the ruling party.

Event and process

Such extraordinary advantages possessed by the MPLA - including the vast resources they had to hand - made the catalogue of confusion on 5 September 2008 something of a surprise. The BBC had earlier referred to "Angola's high-tech election"; but on the day the process collapsed into what European Union observers initially described as "disastrous".

In the morning, hundreds of polling stations in the capital, Luanda, did not open, mainly because of a lack of ballot-papers. By the afternoon, it was clear that many people had not been able to vote, and so the CNE decided to extend the ballot to the following day. Reports are very mixed about the sequence of events, but some EU observers said that only twenty-two stations opened on 6 September. Human Rights Watch, which also had observers on the ground, commented that "this caused further confusion and prevented large numbers of people from voting."

A critical fact here is that Luanda is home to roughly a third of Angola's estimated 15 million people. It is also here, in the capital city, that opposition to the MPLA is most vocal. Only in Luanda do people have access to independent radio-stations and newspapers. Indeed, it was in the capital that many observers, including this author, predicted significant opposition in the vote. Two parties in particular - the Party of the Alliance of Youth, Workers and Peasants of Angola (Pajoca) and the Front for Democracy (FpD) - were expected to do well here.

The Pajoca leader David Mendes is an outspoken human-rights lawyer who has gained publicity defending the rights of poor communities across the capital's sprawling townships and slums. Two days after the election he was unable to explain what had gone wrong. "We are all surprised", he told me over the telephone. "All the parties with potential did so badly, even worse than last time [in 1992]. We really thought we'd do well in Luanda and get 50,000 to 100,000 votes. We don't understand what happened."

When pushed to explain why Pajoca received fewer than 6,000 votes in Luanda, Mendes said: "The public media was decisive in people's minds; the voting tables were controlled in the majority by MPLA people; we had cases of voters receiving food and drinks with the MPLA flag on them; voting lists were transported by the MPLA and the police, sometimes in canoes and helicopters, so we don't know what went on; and there weren't enough independent observers so many people are in doubt about how many people really voted or not."

Mendes stops short of alleging fraud, despite his very reasonable concerns about observers. Indeed, a highlight of these elections was supposed to be the role of 2,640 observers from Angolan civil society. However, less than half that number were given accreditation and they received it only hours before voting began. In Luanda, where 370 civil-society observers were supposed to operate, only twenty-eight were given permission to do so. In a statement on 5 September, the Civil Society Electoral Platform said it was "deeply concerned that the CNE deliberately limited the number of independent observers in Luanda... obstructing impartial and independent verification, and undermining confidence in the process."

Nevertheless, whether these elections were free, fraudulent or just deeply unfair, no amount of carping will change the outcome. The ruling MPLA has gained an overwhelming majority across the entire country; the opposition, as Jornal de Angola crowed days before the official results were published (on 16 September), has been "eliminated". The international community, recently so vocal about elections elsewhere in southern Africa, has given the nod to the MPLA's landslide. So what, now, will the party do with this majority?

Power and history

The president has promised to reform the government, replace "bad" ministers and modernise the constitution. After casting his own vote he told reporters: "We have started a new way of doing politics and of achieving certain objectives where competition is based on respect and freedom." Although many would like to believe him, few are so optimistic. During almost thirty years in power, José Eduardo Dos Santos has shown no desire to democratise even the MPLA party he leads, let alone the country. He is at once head of government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and he also appoints the prime minister and decides who is in government; and he cannot be removed from power in a vote of no confidence.

"In Angola, laws don't really count in terms of the real relations of power", explains Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, fellow at Oxford University and author of Oil and Politics in the Gulf of Guinea (C Hurst, 2007). "Whether the constitution creates an even more presidentialist system, or whether they go for something more open and create an American or French-style system, the fact is that real power relations take place on an extra-constitutional level. And in Angola, the MPLA is basically the firmament, the totality of space and institutions."

The ruling-party's omnipotence stems partly from Angola's conflicted history, as a country ruled for many years by a fascist Portuguese colonial regime, followed by a national-liberation war, the cold war, and then civil war until 2002. Its deeply authoritarian traditions are both a result of this history and also of the training and support it received from the East German Stasi, the Soviet KGB and Cuba.

"The last fifty years have created a sense of embeddedness", says De Oliveira, "and the people in power today are those who have been able to manipulate the political process to their own advantage." But he questions those commentators who believe these latest elections reflect what the Angolan writer Wilson Dadá has called the "Mexicanisation" of the country - a reference to Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party, which stayed in power for seventy-one years until 2000. "Whether the MPLA will be able to keep this landslide", De Oliveira says, "depends on whether they are able, even modestly, to give the population the impression of competence and results in terms of human indicators. If that doesn't materialise, the political process will change."

Oil and future

But this analysis, in which the democratic process finally trumps power, might be too optimistic. Angolans may have battled hard to create a small space for opposition and freedom of expression, a space which was non-existent thirty-three years ago when the MPLA came to power; but the people of this southern African country have more on their hands than simply an authoritarian government. The Angolan government is the richest in sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to abundant onshore and offshore oil reserves. Dos Santos is well aware that he has a large swathe of the rich world at his feet. "Angola", as Nicholas Shaxson puts it, "has all the cards. Foreign governments and oil companies have no leverage over the country: Dos Santos knows they want his oil, and if they don't like what's on offer, there are plenty of others queuing up to take their place."

Until now, Angola has not indulged in what Shaxson calls "resource nationalism", on the scale of big oil-producers such as Venezuela and Russia. However, now that the MPLA is riding high on these election results with more confidence than the party has probably ever had in its half-century of existence, oil companies might start to feel that confidence, thus bending contracts further in Angola's favour. Moreover, 2009 will see another lever in the hand of the MPLA, when Angola assumes the position of head of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec).

Oil-power helps explain why the international community tends to remain so mute when it comes to commenting on Angolan - as opposed to Zimbabwean - governance. Nicholas Shaxson, author of Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil(Palgrave, 2008), believes it also explains why Angolan people have such a hard struggle for democracy on their hands. "The real battle here ultimately revolves around taxation" he says. "Rulers in mineral-rich countries don't tax their citizens - they tax the oil companies. This leaves citizens without any bargaining power against their government, which doesn't need the citizens in order to survive."

If Shaxson is right, the MPLA might well be in power for at least another couple of decades, or more. Unless the price of a barrel of oil suddenly drops to $10, it is hard to imagine what could stop Angola's ruling party now. Incidentally, the new female deputy, whose father happens to be the Angolan president, is named after a plant found only in the Angolan and Namibian deserts; it is considered by experts to be a living fossil, because it can survive more than a thousand years.

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