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Oil-rich and impoverished, Angola heads for the polls

The ruling party's stake in the economic wealth is seen by critics as too great to allow for real change.

September 05, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

LUANDA, ANGOLA — Voters in Angola, one of Africa's biggest oil producers, will take part in parliamentary elections today for the first time in 16 years, with analysts forecasting peaceful balloting and a victory for the MPLA party, which has been in power for 33 years.

The first and last time Angola voted, in 1992, the loser, rebel UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi, denounced the results, took up arms and fought for an additional 10 years.

From the fight for independence from Portugal, which concluded successfully in 1975, until Savimbi's death in combat in 2002, Angola was almost constantly a battleground. Six years of peace and record oil prices have transformed it into one of the world's fastest growing economies -- yet one of its most unequal.

Human Rights Watch and the London-based think tank Chatham House have questioned whether the elections can be free and fair, given the ruling party's dominance of the state media. Human Rights Watch has also cited cases of violence and intimidation.

Opposition critics accuse the MPLA, which has run Angola for the entire post-colonial period, of using state resources in the campaign. Final results are not expected until sometime next week.

Both sides say they want to reduce poverty and unemployment and to build schools, hospitals and infrastructure. The MPLA claims credit for an economic boom brought about by high oil prices, but UNITA says few have reaped the riches and that a government that has not delivered decent living standards during more than three decades in power will not suddenly start keeping its promises.

Despite massive foreign investment and oil production of 2 million barrels a day, Angola remains firmly embedded at the bottom end of the United Nations index that measures living standards and poverty, ranked 162 of 177 countries.

Angola is also rated as one of the most corrupt countries by the government watchdog group Transparency International, which says the nation is as corrupt as Nigeria, Angola's rival as the continent's biggest oil producer.

The stakes in the vote are high: Shareholders in Angola's most powerful oil companies and banks include many government ministers, generals, police officers, relatives of longtime President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and of other government officials closely tied to the MPLA.

Angolan investigative journalist Rafael Marques says that Angola's super-rich elite is so entrenched in the oil, diamond and financial sectors that it is difficult to envision them giving up power.

"The MPLA has too much at stake," he said. "They will not jeopardize their wealth if they lose the elections. The trouble will not arise if they win comfortably. The trouble will only arise if they lose, or they win by a small margin."

The elections are supposed to pave the way for a presidential vote next year. Dos Santos, 66, joined the MPLA guerrilla army at 19 and trained as an oil engineer in the Soviet Union before abandoning communism after the collapse of the USSR. In office since the death of the nation's first president in 1979, he has said he will not run in 2009, but some analysts predict that, with no obvious successor in sight, he will change his mind.

The public is looking forward to peaceful elections this time.

Moises Juliao, 39, an unemployed carpenter, was one of millions of Angolans fired up with hope in 1992, but those elections saw the nation slide back into civil war over disputed results. He is confident that this vote will not lead to war because the atmosphere has changed.

Juliao grew up in war, he said. During the civil conflict that beset Angola from its days of independence in 1975 through 2002, one side would take over his town of Kasonge, committing atrocities, then the other would move in, unleashing its own violence. Civilians accused of loyalty to one side or the other were slaughtered.

His wife's grandmother was beheaded by UNITA rebels, he said, because she was a teacher and therefore seen as loyal to the MPLA government. He and his family repeatedly switched sides to survive, and eventually fled to Sumbe, about 170 miles south of Luanda, the capital.

"One party comes and kills because we were under the control of the other party. And then the others do the same."

This time, however, "you will see people putting up their [party] flags and no one minds. Everybody is campaigning freely. People are building roads and nobody's coming to threaten them. These are signs that things are OK."

Shrugging off a past

UNITA, the largest of 13 opposition parties, is trying to shrug off its past as a brutal rebel army backed by the U.S. during the Cold War, and promises to address Angola's poverty and unemployment.

But even though about half the population is unemployed and up to 70% of people live on less than $2 a day, some are predicting that the MPLA may get the two-thirds majority required to adopt a constitution that entrenches the president's centralized power.

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