19 December 2008

Angola: Elections - Waiting for Democracy to Fall from the Sky


Analysing the background to Angola's legislative elections at the beginning of September, Rafael Marques de Morais considers the wide voting irregularities and social inequalities that allowed José Eduardo dos Santos's MPLA to tighten its grip on political power. Reviewing the final results of the elections, the author argues that the central challenge for the Angolan electorate is to carve out a path of genuine representation and a new vision of genuine democratic power, all the while maintaining a commitment to non-violent action.

I would like to share with you a perspective on the legislative elections that took place in Angola on 5 and 6 September 2008. These elections are of profound historical significance for both the country and for Africa. For Angola because they mean, first and foremost, the strengthening of peace and stability and, second, the normalisation of state institutions following a 16-year hiatus between the country's first and second elections.

The government of Angola, through the voices of the president and other high ranking officials, has reiterated on various occasions that these elections would and have been an example for Africa. Indeed, after the troublesome elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe, and given Angola's own past experience of returning to war after the 1992 elections, these proved an outstanding case.

By referring to the official results of the 2008 elections and their organisation, I shall try to answer two questions: Were these elections about democracy? And what lessons can the Angolan elections provide in the African context?


The peacefulness with which people exercised their right to vote was, without doubt, the most remarkable aspect of the elections. In 1992, in spite of the looming war, ordinary people also acted with exemplary commitment to peace and democracy. They did their part.

Another important factor that greatly contributed to such a climate of peace has been, to a certain extent, the fact that the elections only took place after six years of peace, and in a context in which the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola - Partido do Trabalho (MPLA - Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola - Party of Labour) has successfully reduced the opposition to tokenism, with its existence only guaranteed by the requirements of the law.

A brief historical narrative is necessary to understand the political and socio-economic circumstances that paved the way for MPLA to win, through elections, the veneer of democratic legitimacy to continue to act as a one-party state.

In the struggle for independence, from 1961 to 1975, the call for arms encompassed all other forms of opposition to colonialism. Thus, claims to nationalism, patriotism and of service to the country had to be certified by guerrilla credentials. Guns bestowed legitimacy. The civil war that transformed Angola into a Cold War theatre, from 1975 to 1991, had no margins for dissent. On the one hand, there was MPLA's one party state, under Marxism-Leninism, and on the other a rebel movement, União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA - National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), then backed by the West. The emergence of civil opposition parties in 1992, with the implementation of a multi-party democracy, remained purely symbolic, for the country returned to war in October 1992. This further entrenched the traditional bipolarization of the country's politics, in which the holding of the guns decided who had the right to negotiate peace, reconciliation and the course of politics in the country. The military defeat of UNITA, and especially the killing of its leader, Jonas Savimbi, in 2002, changed the rules however. The peaceful period which has followed, the soaring global oil price and Angola's increasing output has made it, according to the World Bank,[1] 'one of the fastest growing economies in the world'. Thus, the swelling of the state coffers and society's longing for peace and stability, after decades of relentless war, also became contributing factors for MPLA to act at will as the victor, and a very rich one at that.

Nevertheless, a significant political move by MPLA gave a new dimension to politics. It maintained a government of reconciliation and national unity throughout the third stage of the civil war, 1998-2002. All the relevant opposition parties, including UNITA, of the 11 represented at the 1992 elected National Assembly, served in government up until early October 2008, although without decision making influence. This met that during the only period of effective peace, from 2002 to 2008, when opposition parties could have crafted a space to pose as political alternatives, they remained a mere accessory for MPLA in its ruling of the country. Consequently, MPLA felt no need to engage in either a genuine process of national reconciliation or in any form of political transition preceding the elections to effectively democratise state institutions.

With its monopoly on the state and in need of securing legitimacy through elections, MPLA circumvented the establishment of an independent electoral commission by setting up an inter-ministerial commission - made up purely of senior MPLA officials - to organise voters' registration and handle the executive tasks of preparing for the elections. The head of the commission, Fontes Pereira - who is also the minister of Territorial Administration - also ran and won a seat as an MPLA candidate. The role of the Comissão Nacional Eleitoral (CNE - National Electoral Commission),[4] as an independent body comprised of eight MPLA appointees and three opposition members, became secondary to other parallel bodies in charge of the electoral process, as will be further illustrated.

I will now proceed to critically analyse the final results. According to the CNE, of the 8.3 million eligible voters, 7,213,281 voted, electing 220 Members of Parliament. There were 10 political parties and four coalitions in contention. MPLA returned 191 MPs, securing a landslide victory of 81.64%. As the main opposition party, UNITA obtained a meagre 10.32% of the votes, returning 16 MPs, while the Partido Renovador Social (PRS - Party for Social Renovation), clinched eight seats. The former liberation movement Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA - National Front for the Liberation of Angola) claimed three seats and a recently established coalition, Nova Democracia, heard of only during the electoral campaign, won two seats as well.[2] In line with the new electoral law, with one exception, the other contenders are to be disbanded by the Constitutional Court for failing to reach a minimum of 0.55% of the votes.

While the voting was remarkably peaceful, a number of organisational issues and final numbers merit consideration. Due to the brevity of this work, I will concentrate on four provinces: the capital Luanda, the northern province of Kwanza-Norte, and the northeastern provinces of Lunda-Norte and Lunda-Sul.

On the election day, 5 September 2008, voting in Luanda was marred by organisational and logistical chaos at polling stations. Many polling stations were in short supply of ink, ballot boxes or ballots or did not have any one of them. Voting was extended to the following day as a result and of the 320 polling stations that were officially supposed to open on 6 September 2008 only 48 ended up doing so, according to a statement made by CNE's president, Caetano de Sousa, during a press conference at the end of the same day.[3] This meant that 242 polling stations did not receive a single vote. However, in the final results announced by the same CNE, it declared that each of the 2,584 polling stations, without a single exception, opened up and that the voters cast their ballots in every one to total a turnout of 82.42% of the capital's registered voters. At the polls, the verification of voters' registry had been scrapped to make it possible for anyone to vote anywhere without constraints.

A preliminary report by Luanda's Electoral Commission sheds some light into what happened with these organisational and logistical problems.[4]

The distribution of the ballots, voting stands and all other materials at the polling stations was assigned to a private company Valleysoft in a process in which Luanda's Electoral Commission was only a witness. The latter complained that the deliverance of such materials were 'belated, extemporaneous and in scarcity'.

Only at 19:00, one hour after the polls officially closed, did CNE inform Luanda's Electoral Commission that it had bought kerosene lanterns, along with one barrel of fuel, to distribute to the polling stations for vote counting. In many polling stations, electoral agents had to use their car headlights to count the votes, in others candles, and in other locations ballots were, owing to the lack of light, simply taken away for counting without due supervision.

'There was an absence of intra-communication between the polling stations and the Electoral Municipal Commissions/Luanda Electoral Commission and vice versa', the report documented.

The reported stated that the mapping of the polling stations in possession of the electoral municipal commissions did not coincide with that in the possession of Valleysoft, the company responsible for the supplying of voting materials to the polling stations. Thus, many polling stations did not have the material to perform their duties. Moreover, according to the report, Valleysoft belatedly delivered the ballots to the polling stations, and followed up with an un-coordinated and overdue re-supply.

In the province of Kwanza-Norte - where MPLA won 94.73% of the votes - all the 156,666 registered voters turned up to cast their ballots. With registration having taken place some two years before, this would have meant, as one national commentator noted, that not a single citizen had died, was in hospital, had travelled or was held at home or elsewhere for some unforeseen circumstances on the day of the vote. Every single one of them went to the polls.

As for Lunda-Norte, its electoral provincial commission officially reported to CNE a total of 311,684 voters casting ballots, from an initial figure of 340,330 registered. But the final results released by the national body brought that number down to 290,889, which meant lowering the turnout from 92% to 85% of the total registered voters. All other relevant numbers reveal the same disparities. In this province, irregularities amounted to the direct control by municipal and communal administrations of the electoral process, including the counting of votes, as was the case in the municipality of Kapenda-Kamulemba, according to reports I have obtained. In one illustrative case, the communal administrator of Xinge extended the voting to the following day while he served as the electoral agent in an explicit drive for people to vote for MPLA only.[5]

In Lunda-Sul province, the ruling party proceeded with an anticipated distribution of ballots to traditional authorities to make sure their communities voted beforehand for MPLA as instructed. Due to an apparent excess of zeal, some of the chiefs openly took the batch of cast ballots to the polling stations. In one polling station, coded 17.01.099, in Lunda-Sul's capital Saurimo, where the opposition had strong representation, the electoral officers took into custody soba (chief) Abel Martins (voter registration card n º 18973), who had gone to deliver the lot of ballots he had received from MPLA operatives. There is however no record of the soba being tried.

As time progresses, more information is becoming available concerning similar situations across the country. I would not like to engage in speculation as to what would have happened in case of a more transparent process. The point is that, from the outset, MPLA had no challenge in its deeds concerning the preparation for elections. For instance, it only set up the constitutional court to oversee the legal structure of the elections and vet the participation of the political parties on 26 June 2008. This court announced on 27 July which parties had met the legal requirements to run, less than a week before the month-long electoral campaign officially started. The main consequence was that all the opposition parties were only able to receive funding for the electoral campaign days after the campaign had started. By law, the parties are funded by the state, and Article 95 of the Electoral Law (Law 6/05)[6] instructs that state funding must be made available to political parties 90 days before election day.

Nevertheless, MPLA has been able to show its ability to assign symbolic representation to the most disaffected areas of the country, specifically the oil and diamond rich provinces. For most of the provinces, MPLA claimed 100% victories. The electoral system determines that each of the 18 provinces elect, through party lists, five Members of Parliament, and in these elections only five provinces will also have opposition MPs representing them in parliament, as follows:

• In the oil rich northernmost enclave of Cabinda where a fragmented and nowadays largely symbolic secessionist guerrilla movement and the local population dispute its rule, MPLA conceded one MP to UNITA

• Likewise, in the oil-rich northern province of Zaire - where the paradox of oil aplenty and extreme poverty has not been addressed - MPLA relinquished one seat to the son of the late FNLA leader, Holden Roberto, who was born in the province and therein commanded his most loyal following

• In the central plateau, Bié province, the birthplace of Jonas Savimbi and of the current UNITA president, Isaías Samakuva, MPLA gave up one seat. In 1992, UNITA had won all the five seats at stake in this province

• For the diamond-rich province of Lunda-Sul, MPLA claimed three seats and let the Party for Social Renovation have two. This is where the top leadership of this opposition party comes from and where it claims a close knit grassroots support

• In another diamond-rich province, Lunda-Norte, MPLA conceded one seat to PRS.

The make up of the National Assembly has also been compounded by an aggressive strategy of cementing the personalised rule of the country. It also guaranteed seats for the incumbent President José Eduardo dos Santos, his wife and the first lady Ana Paula dos Santos, and his daughter Welwitchia dos Santos.

Now, in another show and distortion of power, President Dos Santos, who has been in office since 1975 and has never been democratically elected, made an announcement on 28 November 2008 on why there should be no rush to set a date for the presidential elections[7] scheduled for next year:

'...today we have two currents of opinion, in our society, on how the president should be elected. There are those who defend that the president must be elected by parliament, and others who think that the President of the Republic must be elected directly by the citizens. The constitution will define the best way to follow and, thus, we will be in condition to set the date for [the presidential] elections.'[8]

By coincidence, the proposal for the president to be elected by the National Assembly comes from the Nova Democracia coalition, which out of obscurity claimed two seats at national level in the legislative elections. This is supposedly the other 'current' the president refers to in his speech.

I answer now, by way of conclusion, the two initial questions I posed. MPLA has demonstrated greater arrogance then ever in abusing power and subverting the rule of law. With absolute monopolies on the economy, from public and private sectors, as well as the media outlets with national outreach, concentrated in its hands, elections, in practical terms, signal a complete lack of political will to effectively democratise society.

After 16 years of the same parliament, periodic review of the legislative body is thus of great importance, as is a review of MPLA's legitimised, absolute rule, for it will enable opposition parties to offer an effective challenge to the ruling party and thus avoid being merely decorative. For the next four years, people may also develop a more critical sense and hold MPLA to account for its promises of a million jobs, a million houses, and of sending students to the best universities in the world. The World Bank ranks Angola as one of the most unequal societies in the world, and evaluates the need to ensure a wide share of the oil wealth and the reduction of poverty and inequality 'as the single biggest challenge' in the country. How to achieve such a goal without political transformation is in itself the first challenge and one for which the World Bank offers no advice.

One of Angola's foremost political cartoonists, the extremely witty Lito Silva, recently published a cartoon in Semanário Angolense in which a voter looks in vain to the sky with his inked index finger prominently pointed upwards.[9] In the background, two children look pitifully at him and the boy tells the girl that since that man voted he 'stands there everyday waiting for democracy to fall from the sky'.

I think this cartoon exemplifies how Angolans are resigned to a surreal political process in the name of peace and stability as well as the lack of alternative leadership. For changes to come it will take individuals of greater courage and political skills to propose a new vision for the country and to be able to rally people towards a common goal and break the barriers of fear, clientelism and dependency on partisanship. The main challenge is to propose ways for Angolans to progress from being mere voters to fully fledged citizens in their own country.

As for Africa, these elections offer one practical lesson to the continent. Violence is not the solution to bring about democracy, for it only causes more suffering to the downtrodden, while opposing factions merely make arrangements to share the spoils of the state according to their strengths of power.

* Rafael Marques de Morais, an Angolan, is a journalist by training. He is currently studying for the MSc in African Studies and is based at St Antony's College, University of Oxford.

* A version of this paper was presented at An African Conversation on Elections in Angola, Kenya and Zimbabwe, organised by the International Communications Forum (ICF) in London, on December 1 2008.

* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/

[1] See the World Bank's Angola country brief here.

[2] On 17 September 2008, the state daily newspaper Jornal de Angola dedicated special coverage to the elections by printing CNE's final official results. CNE's website, www.cne.ao, also provides detailed information on the final results.

[3] See Lusa's coverage of CNE president's press conference of 6 September 2008, Angola/Eleições: CNE dá por encerrada votação e considera saldo "positivo" at http://ww1.rtp.pt/noticias/index.php?article=362093&visual=26

[4] Commissão Provincial Eleitoral de Luanda (2008) RelatÃ'rio das Actividades Referente ao III Trimestre - 2008.

[5] Detailed information can be found in RelatÃ'rio Síntese sobre as Eleições Legislativas 2008 de 5 de Setembro, from the Secretariado Executivo Municipal de Kapenda-Kamulemba do PRS.

[6] See Lei Eleitoral (2005) at http://www.cne.ao/pdf/lei06_05.pdf

[7] In its Article 57, the Constitutional Law, stipulates that the President of the Republic is elected by universal, direct and equal suffrage. As a matter of fact, the Constitutional Law has been transitional since 1992, and MPLA has now the absolute majority to change it solely in accordance to its or, more specifically, the president's, own designs.

[8] See Jornal de Angola (29/11/2008), 'Nova Constituição Estabelece Moldes para as Presidenciais'. http://www.jornaldeangola.com/artigo.php?ID=96922

[9] See 'O Cartoon por Lito Silva' (01/11/08-08/11/08) in Semanário Angolense, Edição n°289.

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