Angola: the democratic transition that never was
In Angola’s 24 August general election, President João Lourenço, heading the party that has ruled for almost half a century, was re-elected for a second term. On a playing field heavily tilted in his favour, amid unprecedented abstention and claims of fraud, he achieved only 51 per cent of the vote and a majority of 124 out of 220 parliamentary seats. Power remains in the ruling party’s hands, but the narrow win may keep hopes of change alive. The government now has a choice: intensify repression to try to avoid a future democratic defeat, or accept a coming reality of pluralist politics.
On 24 August, Angola held the most competitive election in its history – but it wasn’t enough to bring about the change many were looking for.
President João Lourenço’s Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the party that has ruled the country since it gained independence in 1975, just managed to cling on to power. In a vote in which the ruling party used every tool at its disposal to skew the result, the official count gave the MPLA just over 51 per cent of the vote, compared to 44 per cent for the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and its presidential candidate, Adalberto da Costa Júnior.
On 9 September, Angola’s Constitutional Court issued an unappealable ruling dismissing the opposition’s challenge to the results, giving the green light for presidential inauguration to take place on 15 September.
Winds of change
The challenge against the ruling MPLA had been building for years, and in 2017, when MPLA leader José Eduardo dos Santos, president since 1979, finally stepped down, Angolans thought change was just around the corner.
But Lourenço, a former general and dos Santos’s minister of defence, took over as party leader and won the 2017 election, amid reports of fraud and with the MPLA’s lowest vote share since Angola’s first multiparty election in 1992: the MPLA took 61 per cent and UNITA 27 per cent.
Lourenço campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, marketing his administration as a fresh start compared to his predecessor. But many saw this as merely superficial change. Within a year of the election, surveys showed widespread dissatisfaction: leadership had changed but the style and substance of government remained the same. Anti-corruption measures were strictly targeted at dos Santos’s closest associates, a means for Lourenço to consolidate his power, but the underlying logic of politics stayed as corrupt as ever. There remains an absence of public participation and inclusion. Many continue to see the government as undemocratic and opaque.
Most of Angola’s 34-million population have lived under the MPLA all their lives and have not seen their prospects improve. The country is sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest oil producer but its great wealth fuels corruption and stays overwhelmingly on the top. Meanwhile half the population live on less that U$S1.90 a day. Life expectancy at birth is only 61 years and youth unemployment is beyond 60 per cent – in a country where half of voters are under 36. Conditions suggested many might have good reasons to reject the MPLA in the polls.
Angola’s fifth election
Angola doesn’t have a long history of genuine, clean and fair elections. The 2022 election was only the fifth in its history.
From 1975 to 1991, the MPLA ruled as the only legal political party, shielded from any contest. In the post-Cold War era, when many countries moved to multiparty democracy, Angola held its first competitive election, in September 1992. Dos Santos won 49.6 per cent of the vote – but the next election wouldn’t be held until 2008.
Since dos Santos got less than 50 per cent, a runoff was scheduled to take place soon afterwards, but then Angola’s civil war, which began at independence, re-erupted. For the next 16 years dos Santos held the presidency without ever having been properly elected, accompanied by a parliament that also remained unchanged.
The war ended in 2002 and Angola’s second-ever election was held in 2008, with the MPLA claiming 82 per cent, a share that fell to 72 per cent in 2012 and 61 per cent in 2017, when Lourenço took power. In 2017 the opposition denounced massive irregularities, but its complaints were dismissed.
In 2022, Lourenço sought and obtained a second – and, according to the constitution, final – five-year term. The integrity of the process has again been heavily questioned.
An uneven playing field
The seeds of the MPLA’s 2022 victory were planted at least two and a half years ago. In January 2020, the Council of the Judiciary appointed a new president of the supposedly independent National Electoral Commission (CNE), in charge of managing elections. The body is headed by a president drawn from the judiciary and includes 16 people chosen by the National Assembly from names put forward by political parties.
The new CNE head, backed by the MPLA, is Manuel Pereira da Silva. UNITA submitted an injunction seeking to prevent his appointment due to his insufficient credentials and irregularities in the process. He’s also faced corruption allegations. But the Supreme Court never issued a ruling, so his appointment stood.
The CNE’s lack of impartiality was abundantly clear throughout the electoral process – not least as it arbitrarily set a ceiling of 2,000 national observers to monitor all 13,338 polling stations across Angola. Civic Movement Mudei (‘I changed’ in Portuguese), a civil society coalition campaigning for voting rights and free and fair elections, reported that none of its requests for observer credentials was accepted.
In March 2021, the National Assembly gave general approval to Lourenço’s proposal for a constitutional review to reduce parliamentary checks on executive power and ensure the right to vote for Angolan citizens abroad. The opposition and some civil society groups rejected it, calling for more comprehensive reform including the reduction of presidential powers.
The reform was passed in June. When it was submitted to the Constitutional Court for approval, four of its 11 members ruled it unconstitutional – including the court’s president, Manuel Aragão, who declared this to be ‘suicide of the democratic rule of law’.
In August 2021, Justice Aragão retired and a week later the position was taken over by a member of MPLA’s Political Bureau, Laurinda Cardoso. In her inauguration speech, Cardoso stated that the court should stay ‘above party political bickering’ rather than serve any party interest; however, one of her first actions was to try to nullify the election of Adalberto Costa Júnior as UNITA’s leader.
I don’t think the election was free or fair because the National Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Court have functioned as branches of the party-state.
In November 2021, a law initiated by Lourenço was passed to review electoral legislation. UNITA and other opposition parties issued a joint declaration arguing that the new rules didn’t ensure transparency and fairness.
In early April 2022, following a confusing process for voters to update their registrations, the government announced that the electoral roll included around 14 million people but delayed the release of the data. When the registry became public, it was noted that over two million registered voters were no longer alive.
Two weeks before the campaign was set to begin, the National Assembly passed the Law on Opinion Polls and Surveys, which allowed the government great control over the production and circulation of election polls.
A rigged race
Marked by personal attacks and the absence of debate, the campaign gave an unfair advantage to the incumbent. Public media gave Lourenço a disproportionate amount of coverage, acting as a propaganda channel.
In late July, a group of citizens filed a legal complaint about the partisan use of public media, which the Supreme Court only responded to two days before the election – dismissing it on the grounds that it should have been submitted by the political parties directly affected.
While civil society and opposition parties reported facing restrictions on access to public spaces, government officials campaigned illegally for months on end, displaying party symbols in public offices and taking part in waves of events and tours around the country. Public funding to parties was made available barely 15 days before the start of the campaign, affecting parties other than the MPLA, which was able to use the state’s resources.
The opposition tried to mobilise to demand equal treatment, but a protest planned for 30 July was banned by the city government of Luanda, Angola’s capital, on the grounds of ‘risk of compromising security and public order’. The Luanda authorities noted that the organisers included unapproved groups not running in the election, which therefore had ‘no legitimacy to demand equal treatment in the electoral process’. This was a reference to PRA-JA Servir Angola, a party denied registration by the Constitutional Court.
A week before the election, a civil society protest was held in Luanda to draw attention to irregularities in the electoral process, but the local government also declared this illegal. Protesters were dispersed by police and dozens were arrested.
Among those arrested was Voice of America’s correspondent Coque Mukuta, who was approached by police as he filmed the protest and forced into a police van even though he identified himself as a journalist.
Mukuta was far from the only journalist prevented from doing their job in the run-up to the election: at least three more reported harassment and threats while covering campaign events.
Fearing fraud, ahead of the election UNITA launched the ‘Voted, sat down’ challenge, calling on voters to stay close to polling stations after casting their vote to monitor the release of electoral minutes – the summary data of votes cast in every polling place. The ruling party responded with a counter-campaign urging voters to go straight home after voting, trying to scare them by invoking laws they would supposedly be violating. Fear of violence likely stopped many people mobilising.
An unprecedented proportion of people – 55 per cent – simply didn’t vote. Even taking account of those unable to update their registration or obtain their documents, as well as the ranks of the dead inflating the electoral roll, it’s an astonishing number.
Voices from the frontline
Catarina Antunes Gomes and Cesaltina Abreu are coordinators of the Social Sciences and Humanities Laboratory of the Catholic University of Angola, which works closely with Civic Movement Mudei.
There were probably many reasons why fewer than half of registered voters went to the polls, but we believe major ones were disorganisation, fear and lack of trust.
The whole process was badly organised. In September 2021 there was an ‘unofficial electoral registration’ period, which is really a process of connecting databases to determine who is eligible to vote, but it was not made clear to people what this was about. Most people were confused about what the law said on residency and voting. The process was marked by lack of clarity and irregularities. Everything seemed too complicated so many lost interest. Many people were excluded as a result.
People were also afraid. The electoral campaign should be a time when candidates share their ideas with us, debate their parties’ proposals and tell us their thoughts about Angola’s future. But this was not what happened. The ruling party had a strong negative discourse, treating the other parties as enemies rather than adversaries. They didn’t present any ideas on how to make the country progress and what they published as their political programme was of very low quality.
Staying away from the polls can also be interpreted as a form of protest. We have done a lot of comparative electoral analysis and found that protest voting has increased in Angola through the years. This is the result of people’s complete lack of faith in political institutions, given their limited democratic character and lack of transparency. This year the protest vote rose even further.
This is an edited extract from our conversation with Catarina and Cesaltina. Read the full interview here.
The African Union’s preliminary observation report noted that the election was mostly peaceful but there are many reasons to believe the playing field wasn’t even. Other international observers also reported shortcomings. None could categorically testify that the election had been free and fair. Even four of the 16 electoral commissioners expressed doubts and refused to sign off on the final results.
On 1 September UNITA filed a legal complaint to demand the Constitutional Court annul the results due to ‘several illegalities’. Civic Movement Mudei echoed its concerns in a press statement on 2 September. It was noted that summary minutes had often not been posted at polling places and the CNE hadn’t made them available either. The CNE counted 97 per cent of the votes within 24 hours, then took over 48 hours to count the remaining three per cent. Results were first announced on public TV rather than by the election body. Given the narrow margin by which Lourenço avoided a runoff vote, it’s little wonder many Angolans see the election as fraudulent.
The opposition movement in Angola, UNITA is going to the constitutional court in that country to challenge the recent election results, arguing that they defeated the MPLA. Analyst Paula Cristina Roque unpacks this.— Newzroom Afrika (@Newzroom405) September 5, 2022
Watch: https://t.co/yblNzMkZbO#Newzroom405 pic.twitter.com/nJBwFONZAi
On 6 September, the opposition issued a declaration rejecting the official results, claiming victory and calling for a commission made up of the CNE and members of political parties and civil society to review the results. But two days later the Constitutional Court dismissed the complaint.
The government claimed innocence but acted suspiciously guiltily, targeting local activists who had observed the election and reported irregularities and putting the army on high alert, supposedly to prevent attacks. The climate for people who stood up to the MPLA by criticising the conduct of the election is dangerous.
Voices from the frontline
Pascoal Baptistiny is Executive Director of MBAKITA – Kubango Agricultural Benevolent Mission, Inclusion, Technologies and the Environment, a civil society organisation based in Cuando Cubango province in southern Angola.
Civic space in Angola has been long marked by persecution, intimidation, threats, arbitrary arrests, judicial harassment, slander, defamation, censorship, intolerance and ordered killings. Protests are often banned and frequently repressed, sometimes with lethal violence.
Restrictions tightened before the election and were maintained during the voting and in the aftermath, to prevent protests at suspected fraud. Rapid Intervention Police, State Secret Information Services, Public Order Police, Migration and Foreigners Services, Border Guard Police, Criminal Investigation Services and the Attorney General’s Office were all deployed in the streets of Angola’s 18 provinces.
During the election, I coordinated the Electoral Observation Mission of the Angolan Electoral Observatory in the province of Cuando Cubango. Members of the MPLA became aware of my observation work and my criticisms regarding the lack of integrity of the electoral process.
Following the election, I spoke to CIVICUS towards what would become this interview. The interview had obviously not been published yet, but members of the ruling party somehow knew about it and reacted strongly. I have been intimidated, received death threats and my office and home were put under surveillance. On 4 September, two men tried to kidnap my seven-year-old daughter, enticing her with biscuits and sweets; fortunately, our neighbours noticed what was happening and went after them to prevent them taking her. Right now, I need support to temporarily relocate my family to a safer place in Angola.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Pascoal. Read the full interview here.
The light at the end of the tunnel?
The results were far from the change many desired, but they may signal a shift ahead – unless the MPLA chooses to intensify its repression as it tries to defer an eventual democratic defeat. After all the dubious efforts it clearly made to secure victory, the once-dominant MPLA claimed only just over half the vote. What might it do to hang on next time?
But now it faces a constrained future, due to the institutional implications of its narrow win.
Under Angola’s unusual electoral system, voters elect a president, deputy president and members of parliament all at once, by making a single mark on a ballot paper: they cannot vote differently for the executive and legislative branches of government. The single-chamber National Assembly has 220 members, 130 of whom are elected from a single national constituency, with 90 coming from 18 provincial constituencies.
Its narrow victory leaves the MPLA with a limited parliamentary majority – higher that half the seats but lower than the two thirds majority it’s used to enjoying, which is required to make constitutional amendments. The MPLA now holds 124 seats, 26 fewer than before, while UNITA holds 90 seats, 39 more than it used to. Three small parties each hold two seats.
This might leave the MPLA doing something it isn’t used to: having to negotiate and build consensus. This may mean the end of a decades-long era of unilateral decision-making in Angola. Or, as has happened elsewhere, it could mean increased persecution of critics by a government running out of road and aware of declining public support. The MPLA needs to get used to accepting dissent. If it does, the balance could be tipped towards a more democratic future rather than outright repression.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government must stop attacks on critics and ensure people are free to speak out and criticise the authorities.
The government must take steps to ensure the independence of key judicial and electoral institutions.
Democratic states and international partners should hold the government of Angola to account over its repression of civic space and human rights violations.
Cover photo by Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko