Angola: Lourenço tried to break with Dos Santos legacy, will voters buy it?

Cláudio Silva
By Cláudio Silva

Posted on Wednesday, 24 August 2022 11:41

lourenco and dos santos
João Lourenço, Isabel dos Santos and Jose Eduardo dos Santos. © Jeune Afrique Montage, Fernando Villar/EFE/SIPA; Massimo Sestini/ZUMA/REA; ELMOND JIYANE/AFP

14 million voters go to the polls in Angola today, Wednesday 24 August, in the most competitive elections in Angolan history.

For years, elections in Angola have been seen as a way for MPLA, the ruling party, to legitimise the autocratic, securitised state it has dominated since the country gained independence from Portugal in 1975.

Until 1992, Angola was a one-party state in the throes of a devastating civil war; the onset of multiparty democracy that year did nothing to shake the MPLA’s grip on the state and its institutions.

With the onset of lasting peace in 2002, the ruling party finally gained an opportunity to govern unopposed. Or so it thought.

For the next two decades, MPLA leaders had an opportunity to rebuild the country and usher in a new era of economic growth, prosperity, and sustainable development. Instead, they entrenched themselves in power and embarked on a journey of unprecedented corruption, self-enrichment and repression.

They handily won the 2008 legislative elections with over 80% of the vote, and proceeded to change the constitution to effectively ban direct presidential elections. Instead, the first name on each party’s list of candidates for parliament automatically becomes president of the Republic.

Almost half of survey respondents did not indicate a preference, making a data-based prediction for the August presidential election impossible

They won again in 2012, but by 2017 the gig was up: the population had become weary of MPLA’s tactics and their popularity was at an all time low. Ex-President José Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled Angola for 38 years, was deemed too much of a liability to be put on the ticket. Instead, his hand-picked successor José Lourenço was chosen to lead.

João Lourenço was wise to the fact that his own party was deeply unpopular so upon being elected, he set about consolidating power, ousted Dos Santos from the party presidency, and embarked on a self-styled fight against corruption. The public loved it. Each time he exonerated a government minister and accused them of corruption, internet memes congratulating his moves flooded local WhatsApp groups.

When Lourenço went after Dos Santos’ own children, who at the time headed such important state enterprises as Sonangol (the national oil firm, one of the largest in Africa) and the Angolan Sovereign Wealth Fund, the population began to think that no one was untouchable. Ominously, Dos Santos left the country to live in self-imposed exile in Spain.

READ MORE Angola: on the trail of stolen billions

However, this initial optimism quickly began to change.

Civil society groups and the opposition accused João Lourenço of picking favourites in his fight against corruption, as several members of his own cabinet were credibly accused of corruption but not charged. Scandals cracked open society, including the Luanda Leaks. Local courts were seen to be partisan. Internal divisions within the MPLA were exposed. The economy began to worsen due to falling oil prices, and the pandemic could not have come at a worse time for Lourenço.

Enter Adalberto Costa Júnior

As his and the MPLA’s popularity plummeted, opposition party UNITA’s grew.

Their charismatic leader Adalberto Costa Júnior allied himself with other popular politicians and formed an ad-hoc political group called the United Patriotic Front, or FPU in Portuguese. Costa Júnior quickly gained support of the youth, which are by far the largest electoral bloc. Angola’s high urbanisation rate, currently at close to 67%, further contributed to the country’s changing dynamic; the opposition’s support is highest in the cities, and even in 2017 they won Luanda.

Adalberto’s message has been remarkably consistent during this election cycle.

Capitalising on MPLA’s failings, he has repeatedly promised to overhaul the state’s institutions by changing the constitution to allow for direct presidential elections, implementing local elections in order to decentralise the state, increasing investment in education and healthcare, and improving the country’s business environment to foster employment. This message is light on details and specifics, but it has galvanised the youth: they are the majority in his rallies.

In contrast, João Lourenço has a message of continuity.

In his rallies, he loves to list the perceived accomplishments of his administration, which usually consists of rattling off a long tally of economic figures, growth rates, number of hospitals constructed and kilometres of roads built. As the incumbent, he revels in blurring the line between party and state.

In the mornings, he’ll travel to a province to inaugurate a major state enterprise, as president of the Republic; in the afternoon he wears his presidential candidate hat and presides over a major rally, extolling the virtues of the enterprise he just inaugurated.

Such is the nature of a typical Angolan campaign; actual electoral manifestos seem to be forgotten in the frenzy. Presidential debates are non-existent: a local civil society group, Movimento Cívico Mudei, tried to organise one in Luanda’s Catholic University. However, despite initially agreeing to host the debate, the university later went back on its word and said it was holding an “unavoidable academic event” in the same hall that could not be postponed.

On the day the debate was supposed to be held, the hall was empty. Even before that, some candidates had offered excuses as to why they could no longer attend, and the incumbent never even answered the call.

Besides the absence of a debate, Angolan campaigns are also marked by the absence of reliable polling data. To date, only two credible surveys were done concerning the upcoming elections: one was done in May by Afrobarometer and had MPLA leading UNITA by 7 percentage points (29% to UNITA’s 22%), but as the surveyors said: “Almost half of survey respondents did not indicate a preference, making a data-based prediction for the August presidential election impossible.”

The other survey was conducted by the aforementioned Movimento Cívico Mudei, an amalgamation of several civil society organisations. They completed six monthly surveys from February to July, in 17 of 18 Angolan provinces and in almost all municipalities.

The results were consistent: UNITA maintained a lead of about 20 percentage points over MPLA, with the latest results showing 50.2% of voters favouring the opposition party compared to 27.9% favouring the incumbents.

Perhaps spooked by these results, at one point in the previous months MPLA banned polls and surveys altogether, only to then invent their own survey (showing a sizable win for them) that was quickly debunked as inexistent by local Angolan internet sleuths and, later, the international press.

If an MPLA win is perceived as fraudulent, unrest could follow

It is increasingly clear that MPLA is having trouble connecting to the electorate. Hundreds of thousands of people will be voting for the first time and are relatively immune to their promises. Others have seen them before, and have been left dismayed that their lives haven’t changed much since the previous elections, and in some cases have worsened.

There is also widespread distrust of state institutions.

Among the most disliked of them is the National Electoral Commission, which has come under increasing scrutiny as Angolan voters become more and more experienced.

Such is the level of distrust that UNITA is openly calling on the electorate to exercise their right to vote and then remain close to the polling station in order to “protect their vote” and avoid any alleged tampering. State security forces and the MPLA, of course, one and the same, are saying the exact opposite. Popular perception, corroborated by the Institute for Security Studies, is that, “If an MPLA win is perceived as fraudulent, unrest could follow.”

In all, more than 14 million voters will cast their ballot for what are easily the most competitive elections to date in Angolan history, and the outcome is largely unknown.

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