On 31st of August voters in Angola will elect a new parliament and a president. It is already clear that the dice are loaded. Despite the low quality of the elections and the machinations of the incumbent – is Angola on the path to democracy?

Angola’s new parliamentary building resembles the American Congress and is Luanda’s new architectural landmark. The parliamentarians will soon take office in it and enjoy high salaries and many privileges. But will they truly represent the Angolan people? Will the parliamentary building become a symbol of Angola’s future democracy or of its perversion? The battle for the right answers to these questions is now set to intensify.

The winner takes all
Short of a political miracle, MPLA, the ruling party since 1975, will emerge the winner of the elections – and in Angola, the winner takes all. The recent 2010 constitution states that the head of the party list that receives the most votes will become President of the Republic. The president is head of Government (appointed by himself), head of the armed forces and he appoints most of the judiciary and local government officials. On top of the MPLA list in the 2012 election, we find none other than the incumbent President José Eduardo dos Santos himself. He has been in power since 1979.

The election result might be given, but the outcome of the election is not. Political instability is a real possibility. A few questions will be crucial:

How will “the International Community” treat the dilemmas posed by blatantly undemocratic elections?
In the last (legislative) elections in 2008, the MPLA took near 82 per cent of the votes. With an absolute majority in parliament they unilaterally changed the constitution, and much in President dos Santos’ favour.

The dilemma with Angola now is that the quality of the election seems to be lower this time around. There have already been many irregularities in the set-up of the electoral organisation and in the pre-qualifying process. Significant political opposition voices have been barred from participating, while relatively unknown parties have “surprisingly” passed the hurdles.

Transparency and fairness in the electoral preparations and on Election Day are important features of a democratic process. Yet the lack of separation between the state and the ruling party in Angola is an equally significant hurdle. Throughout the country, people call attention to massive coercion by the party-state: Teachers are forced to go to party meetings and students to Party rallies. Party “militias” harass the opposition in rural villages. Paper boys are “told not to” sell critical newspapers in the provinces. The list is long. There were some feeble protests at irregularities after the elections in 2008. But the European, American and African powers all accepted the result, officially or not. Some powers made pragmatic decisions to accommodate to a less-than-democratic regime, as this was in their own country’s interests. Other countries would have preferred a more principled stance, but still accepted the result based on the argument that “perfect elections in post-war Angola are impossible” – some might indeed have reckoned there was fraud, but not to an extent that significantly impacted on the result. Hence, they say, even low-quality elections are part of a “democratisation process” and preferable to no elections. The latter argument has some support within political science and democracy studies. Yet this “gradualist” argument has also been fiercely criticised by those who say that unfair elections entrench “electoral authoritarianism” and does not build democracy.

Will the opposition and youth radicalise?
MPLA’s principal historical opponent, Unita, seems to have lost hope in the possibility of fair and credible elections. Still, they will probably not boycott the election. Unita needs to remain in the electoral race, lest it leaves the opposition votes to its new competitor: The CASA coalition, originating in a break from Unita in March. The coalition is expected to take votes from both the MPLA and Unita. Other prominent opposition figures and parties (in the historical FNLA, the Bloco Democratico and Partido Popular) have been barred from participating. Some have suggested that now “revolution is the only path to change”.

The last year has shown that a certain section of the youth in Luanda and in the bigger cities is unsatisfied, disillusioned and willing to take to the streets to demand change. It is still unknown to which extent the relatively few demonstrators reflect the opinions, and choice of political language and tactics, of wider sections of the urban youth. If they perceive the election and its results as unfair, frustration and anger will certainly be reignited.

In previous demonstrations, the references to the “Arab spring” were many. The Arab spring provided three “models”: The successes of Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrators, the repression in Bahrain and the catastrophes of Libya and Syria. Evidently, these spectres will influence calculations made by the radicals and the defenders of status quo alike.

The regime’s choices
It seems the post-electoral days and weeks are bound to be troubled with protests and unrest. One determinant of the further path is the uncertainty linked to how the regime will attempt to control such protests. During 2011-12, demonstrators were met with police bullets (rubber and live), arrests and trials, as well as violence from organised bullies of unknown origin. Will the regime’s habit of buying off the potential discontent people with massive hand-outs be sufficient to isolate its critics? Will political clientelism based on massive amounts of patronage and lofty electoral promises to the masses once again be enough to isolate the radicals?

In any event, Angola is likely to present a rugged sea for its citizens and for diplomats and political scientists: All will have to take a stance and reorient themselves in a more polarised situation in which some say Angola’s regime is democratic, many say it is unfair, and some say it is a cruel dictatorship.


Aslak Jangård Orre

Senior Researcher, Coordinator Governance