Johannesburg — Preparations for Angola's second peacetime polls scheduled for August are being overshadowed by allegations of electoral fraud, state media bias and growing concerns about a violent crackdown on activists and protestors.
Human Rights Watch has criticised the government for its heavy-handed response to street demonstrations by former soldiers demanding unpaid military pensions, and the lobby group said that it was worried about a series of violent attacks on youth groups known for their criticism of the government.
"The recent spate of serious abuses against protesters is an alarming sign that Angola's government will not tolerate peaceful dissent," said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director.
"The government should stop trying to silence these protests and focus on improving the election environment," she added.
Meanwhile opposition groups are unhappy about how the elections, which are scheduled for Aug. 31, are being organised. Several parties who were on Friday Jul. 6 barred from taking part altogether - supposedly due to paperwork irregularities - are crying foul.
Of the 27 parties and coalitions who applied to run in the election, only nine have been formally approved by the Constitutional Court.
Among those rejected are the Bloco Democrático (BD), led by leading intellectual and former ruling party member Justino Pinto de Andrade; and Partido Popular, which was formed by respected human rights lawyer David Mendes.
"This is a symptom of Angolan democracy. They have deliberately blocked the parties who campaign for human rights and show solidarity to social causes," BD secretary general, Filomeno Viera Lopes, told IPS.
The largest opposition party, União Nacional pela Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), has been cleared to run, but it remains highly critical of various aspects of the electoral process, especially around the allocation of tenders for services like the printing of ballot papers.
It is also asking whether it is really the National Electoral Commission (CNE) that is in charge of the election or the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA).
The CNE has refuted the allegations of wrongdoing and its president André da Silva Neto has said the vote will be conducted with "exemption, impartiality, transparency and fairness".
The MPLA has also denied the fraud charges and accusations that it is targeting critical activists. Several senior figures, including President Jose Eduardo dos Santos himself, have publicly stated that the party was too big and too popular to need to cheat.
"From a judicial point of view, we have a lot of problems because the electoral commission is still violating the electoral law and we plan to formally complain to the constitutional courts about a number of issues," UNITA spokesman Alcides Sakala said.
He complained about the state media bias towards the ruling party. He also cited a last-minute change to allow diaspora voting, despite the fact that overseas electoral registration had been restricted to embassy staff and MPLA supporters.
Sakala also expressed concern about a plan to allow police officers and the army to vote ahead of polling day.
"How will this process be monitored?" he asked. "No one will be able to control that and that raises a lot of concern from our side."
While UNITA remains the largest party with 16 seats in parliament, it faces some stiff competition from new kid on the block Convergencia Ampla de Salvação de Angola (CASA-CE).
Formed just months ago by the highly regarded Abel Chivukuvuku, himself formerly of UNITA and with close links to the late war-time leader Jonas Savimbi, CASA-CE brings a new dynamic to the Angolan political scene.
Angolan expert Markus Weimer from London-based think tank Chatham House said that while CASA-CE could only hope to secure a few seats in parliament, its formation was ruffling feathers within the MPLA.
"I think the MPLA is worried by CASA-CE because it is an unknown," he said. "The party has come seemingly from nowhere and from nothing and they are not quite sure how to handle them."
Weimer said he was confident the MPLA, which has a firm grip on the country's economy and media, both state and private, would win the vote. He added that it was crucial that the doubts over the voting process were cleared up.
"The process needs to be seen as legitimate by everyone for the MPLA's win to be accepted," he explained.
"The MPLA will be prepared to lose seats if it means the election is regarded as credible and legitimate."
Angola's experience of elections is limited, having only previously held two since the country's independence from Portugal in 1975.
The 2008 poll passed peacefully despite widespread allegations of vote-rigging, but the election in 1992 was abandoned midway and triggered a second phase of the civil war that lasted until 2002. The first civil war began after independence in 1975 until 1991.
There are fears that if opposition parties do not feel the vote is conducted fairly, this could trigger protests and lead to unrest.
"We want to keep a positive approach and avoid this," UNITA's Sakala said.
"We will be insisting that the law is followed so that we can avoid other situations that can lead to other difficulties that are not good for the country."
He said they had been encouraged by the Supreme Court's June decision to uphold his party's appeal against the appointment of MPLA member Suzanna Ingles to the presidency of the CNE despite only being a lawyer, and not a serving judge as the law required.
While this is a legislative election, the vote will also decide who will be Angola's president because a controversial change in the constitution in 2010 means that the head of state is now elected from the top of the list of the party which wins the most parliamentary votes.
With the MPLA on course for what seems like another victory, Dos Santos, who has been in power for 33 years since 1979 despite never being formally elected, will be handed a new five-year term.
The length of the 69-year-old's presidency, one of the longest in Africa, alongside widespread allegations of illicit enrichment by his family and inner circle, has been a driver for some of the recent youth protests.
Despite the country's enormous oil wealth and impressive post-war economic growth, between half and two thirds of the population still live in poverty, many in slum-style conditions without access to running water, sanitation or electricity.