Angolan democracy is about to turn another page as the nation goes to the polls on 31 August. Once known as a brutal cold war arena littered with landmines, Angola is now holding elections for the third time in its history.
The first elections in 1992 resulted in war whereas the 2008 elections cemented peace. The 2012 elections are the first under the new constitution and the first time since 1992 that President dos Santos has the opportunity to gain a democratic mandate.
Predictions of unrest are rife amongst commentators. The dynamics since 2008 have certainly changed. New issues and parties have emerged onto the scene and the Angolan youth, many of whom have little or no memory of war, are able to vote for the first time. They are also making themselves heard, including through street protests. There is less fear of war amongst the young and less patience with the lack of basic services, education and jobs. Nevertheless, street protests in 2011 and 2012 have failed to turn into mass rallies. While a youthful dynamism has been injected into Angolan politics, predictions of a return to war are misguided. All parties in the country are firmly committed to peace.
The presidential ticket
The party of government (MPLA) is the largest, best resourced, and best organized party in Angola. It won the 2008 elections with a landslide 82%. In 2012 the party is likely to emerge as the strongest party again albeit with a lower margin of victory. One reason for this is the dos Santos/Vicente ticket. President and party leader José Eduardo dos Santos has anointed Manuel Vicente, former CEO of state oil company Sonangol, and his close ally, as heir apparent and future vice-president. In the process he bypassed many bona fide MPLA party members with liberation credentials who opposed Vicente.
Having Vicente on the ticket will do the president no favours in winning the popularity contest between him and the party. Dos Santos has always tried to avoid direct comparison with the party for fear of being undermined. This is the reason no presidential elections took place in 2008 (82% was too high to beat), and the reason why the new constitution establishes the election of the legislative and the executive simultaneously (the first two names on the party list automatically become president and vice-president).
His insecurity about his own popularity amongst the people compared to that of his party is the president’s Achilles heel. Street protests against his 33 year rule and allegations of corruption against allies in his inner circle do not help. But a beauty contest between him and the party is something he cannot escape. This is likely to be the last time dos Santos will face elections and great effort will be expended to ensure an adequate victory margin, but President dos Santos and the MPLA will find it hard to replicate the 2008 82% landslide. Fewer votes (as a percentage or in total) could be attributed to his (and Vicente’s) presence on the top of the party list and may weaken him within the party.
The electoral process is in need of greater credibility. Allegations of irregularities have marked the process from the beginning. The legitimacy of the process is paramount and allegations of fraud must be investigated by credible, independent (and legitimate state) parties who are familiar with the matter and have ways of verification. These include election observers, the National Election Commission itself, the Constitutional Court, and others. In this context it is regretful that the European Union has decided not to send an election observer mission to Angola. Most of all, the MPLA and President dos Santos need these elections to be perceived as legitimate - both at home and abroad. The MPLA expects to win. If the process is flawed the result, and the president-elect, will lack legitimacy.
For the country a reduced MPLA majority would not be a bad result as it may allow new parties such as the CASA-CE to enter parliament, and established parties such as UNITA to increase their number of seats. A stronger parliamentary opposition may lead to better debates and discussions and is a pre-condition for increased accountability of the executive to the people.