LUANDA (Reuters) – “Victory is certain” runs the old war slogan of Angola’s ruling MPLA party, and few doubt that a one-sided election on Friday will keep President Jose Eduardo dos Santos at the helm of Africa’s second largest oil producer. Despite palpable discontent among ordinary Angolans about the unequal distribution of their country’s oil wealth, Dos Santos’ MPLA is expected to win most of the votes at the expense of much smaller and weaker opponents, including the former rebel group UNITA.
It will only be Angola’s third national election since its abrupt and violent independence from Portugal in 1975, and the second since the end of 27 years of civil war, whose scars remain in the form of damaged buildings and amputee land mine victims.
The MPLA’s monolithic hold on state institutions and coffers and its control of most local media gave it clear advantages in a lop-sided election campaign over UNITA and seven other smaller coalitions and parties which are fielding candidates.
The month-long campaign was generally peaceful, marred only by an incident on Thursday in which police detained a dozen members of the CASA-CE opposition party when they tried to enter the national elections commission to demand credentials to observe the vote.
Seeking to repeat a crushing 2008 election win over UNITA with 82 percent of the vote, the MPLA has sought to ram home the message that Dos Santos, who turned 70 this week, represents the best guarantee of peace and prosperity in Angola.
“We’re going to continue the work we started,” the silver-haired president told 20,000 cheering supporters on Wednesday in a closing campaign rally at the national stadium in the capital, Luanda.
The election will appoint 220 lawmakers, with the leader of the winning party automatically becoming president for a five-year term.
“POOR IN A RICH COUNTRY”
While denouncing alleged electoral irregularities, Dos Santos’ opponents have also focused on what they say is the rampant corruption of the MPLA leadership at the expense of Angola’s poor.
Civil society activists say the election involving nearly 10 million registered voters, hailed as a “Feast of Democracy” by Angola’s state media, will not pass muster as a credible democratic exercise.
“We can’t really talk of transparent, fair and just elections, we are very far from that,” said Elias Isaac, Angola country director for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), a pro-democracy NGO.
Observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union and the Community of Portuguese-Speaking States of which Angola is a member will witness the elections.
But there are no formal observer missions from the European Union or the United States, both major importers of Angola’s oil along with China. Some senior diplomats from Western embassies said they had not received credentials from the national elections commission to observe the voting.
The MPLA’s dominance reflects Dos Santos’ nearly 33 years in power during which the reserved Soviet-trained oil engineer survived Cold War offensives by South African apartheid forces and rebel fighters – thanks to Cuban and Soviet military support – and then defeated UNITA in the civil war that ended a decade ago.
But after 10 years of peace, the ruling party faces growing popular discontent over persistent poverty and inequality in a country rich in oil, diamonds and land, something Dos Santos’ opponents have sought to exploit.
“Angolans are suffering because they are poor in a rich country,” UNITA leader Isaias Samakuva told a campaign rally, recalling that a large majority do not have running water or electricity in their homes.
In apparent recognition of this, the MPLA’s election slogan pledges to “to make Angola grow more and to distribute better”.
There has been plenty of growth – an oil boom fuelled growth averaging 15 percent between 2002 and 2008 and new buildings thrusting into the Luanda skyline testify to buoyant expansion prospects – but distribution of this wealth has been unequal among the country’s 18 million people.
On his 70th birthday on Tuesday, Dos Santos inaugurated a $360 million facelift for Luanda’s waterfront promenade amid a crowd of dignitaries, the latest of a string of big-ticket infrastructure projects opened by the MPLA during campaigning.
Just a few minutes from the renovated, palm-lined seafront is the crowded slum of Sambizanga where Dos Santos was born, according to his official MPLA biography.
Here, cars and pedestrians weave through a warren of dirt streets, where scores of children play among pools of sewage and patches of trampled mud between crude tin-roofed brick homes.
At one corner stands a water point, enclosed in a metal grille, which local residents say has not yielded running water for three or four years. “We don’t need much to fix this,” said Maria Dos Santos Campos, gesturing to the dry water stand and comparing it with the millions spent on the seafront promenade.
“Angola is a rich country. I don’t believe the neighbourhood should be the way it is … our party in power needs to do more and talk less,” she added.
Critics like OSISA’s Isaac say Dos Santos runs Angola like a “one-person state”, surrounded by family members and a political and military elite he says use public funds to further their own private business interests. “It’s a group of bloodsuckers feeding from a vein,” he says.
Dos Santos supporters blame those around the president. “The man is not God … a country cannot be built in a day. The intention is good,” a civil servant who only gave his name as Pedro said, wearing the MPLA’s red, black and yellow colours.
The leader of the opposition CASA-CE, breakaway UNITA dissident Abel Chivukuvuku, has made a point of campaigning on the street and plunging into crowds and markets to greet voters, accusing Dos Santos of being out of touch and distant.
“The one who doesn’t know your suffering cannot address your suffering,” he said.