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Critics say vote cements Angola's one-party rule

The West's muted reaction to the oil-rich nation's election shortcomings is called a double standard.

September 11, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Angola's first election in 16 years was seen by some analysts and observers as a halting, if not entirely free and fair, step toward democracy. But the results announced Wednesday left others worried that the African nation had tilted dangerously toward becoming a one-party state.

According to official provisional results, the ruling MPLA won 81.8% of votes and the main opposition UNITA party won 10.4% in Friday's balloting, giving the ruling party well over the two-thirds parliamentary majority required to change the constitution.

While the ruling party has not made clear plans for constitutional change, critics fear it could further entrench the powers of the president and the dominance of the MPLA.

In the oil-rich southern African nation, which has massive Western investments, praise for the election was lukewarm. Relief that the balloting was largely peaceful and did not lead to renewed civil war was tempered by criticism that the election failed basic international standards.

Angola's only previous election, held in 1992, was a botched attempt to end decades of war. UNITA rejected the results, and the country endured 10 more years of fighting.

There was disappointment this week among Angola's civil society groups that the West, with huge oil interests in Angola, was not more critical of the election's shortcomings.

But according to a Western diplomat who declined to be named, there was never an expectation that the vote would be free and fair. The best that could be hoped for was that the country would take a peaceful step toward democracy.

Angola rivals Nigeria as Africa's biggest oil producer, and is ranked by the watchdog group Transparency International as equally corrupt. In recent years, Human Rights Watch has said that billions of dollars in oil revenue have disappeared, while Transparency International has reported the finances of the state oil company, Sonangol, to be extremely opaque.

Many Western observers found the advantages of incumbency -- access to state resources and control of the media -- gave the ruling party an overwhelming advantage in the election.

European Union observers said the election fell short of international standards. They were critical of the chaotic voting process, particularly in the capital, Luanda, which saw some polling stations open late and others not at all.

Criticism by U.S. diplomatic observers was muted. A statement issued by the U.S. Embassy said that no cases of voter intimidation had been observed but that "state control of major media gave the ruling party an advantage."

But investigative Angolan journalist Rafael Marques charged that the West's reaction to the election demonstrated a double standard, leading it to condemn the failures of democracy in Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe but ignore similar shortcomings in Angola because of the latter's massive oil resources. He said in a telephone interview that the election result entrenched a one-party state and legitimized a corrupt regime.

"With the full and unflinching support from the international community for anything this regime does, it can safely privatize the whole country without any fear of criticism. It will be a free ride in terms of awarding most of the prizes to the presidential family and government officials," he said.

The MPLA has ruled Angola since independence from Portugal in 1975. President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, whose wife and daughter won seats in parliament, is widely expected to run in presidential elections planned for next year, despite a previous statement that he would not enter the race.

Members of the president's family and top government officials have shares in the country's top oil, diamond, banking and telecommunications firms. No foreign company can do business in Angola unless it teams up with an influential local company.

The country's economic growth reached 24% last year largely because of high oil prices. Its oil exports in 2007 earned about $43 billion. But unemployment is more than 50%, and nearly three-quarters of the population lives on less than $2 a day, according to U.N. figures. Most homes have no running water or electricity.

Despite massive foreign investment and oil production of 2 million barrels a day, the country remains firmly embedded at the bottom end of the U.N. human development index, which measures living standards and poverty, ranked 147 of 180 countries.

"The West has completely colluded in this [election result], not just because of oil but because Angola is a sort of a cafeteria for Western companies to do business without ethics," said Marques, in a reference to the country's high levels of corruption. "It's in the interests of the Western oil companies and many other business interests that Angola remains as it is."

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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