Angolan Elections 2022 (Part 1): the Election Campaign Starts Here

The date has now been set for this year’s presidential and legislative elections in Angola:  fourteen million registered voters will go to the polls on Wednesday August 24th.

The announcement marks the start of what is expected to be an intense twelve weeks of political activity. For many Angolans this is a period of excitement and hope… their chance to exercise their democratic right and deliver their verdict on the current government’s record. Some, however, view the election campaigns as an opportunity for deception and fraud rather than a true celebration of democracy.

History will record this plebiscite as the fifth democratic election since Angolan Independence in 1975. But it will also be the first election conducted free of the machinations of former President and kleptocrat-in-chief, José Eduardo dos Santos. For 38 years Dos Santos was able to rule unchallenged, only stepping aside as head of state five years ago, when the baton was passed to his fellow MPLA stalwart, João Lourenço.

The MPLA had defeated its principal opponents on the battlefield and could thus claim to be the party that ended decades of conflict, portraying Dos Santos as “the architect of peace”. Before 2017, a combination of presidential executive powers and the appointment of loyalists to all key positions allowed Dos Santos and the MPLA considerable control over the electoral process. Opponents or dissidents could be harassed, silenced or detained. The state-owned mass media amplified the MPLA’s party political propaganda over all else.

This time, Angolans can expect much more freedom of expression and many more candidates hustling for their votes. The opposition parties hope to exploit widespread frustration that twenty years on remote provinces have yet to benefit from the peace dividend, that large swathes of the country are still waiting for essential infrastructure and services, and that for all the promises of the MPLA and President Lourenço, life has not improved for the vast majority of Angolans.

For now, all is calm. There has been a remarkable lack of political debate and many of the registered political parties and their candidates have yet to launch their campaigns. They will be hoping to tap into the zeitgeist of the Angolan electorate, to capitalize on every flaw or failing of the party in power, and especially to attract a youthful demographic, born into peacetime, with no historic allegiance.

What will be the keynote issues in the coming elections? What might coalesce support or divide it? What will each party promise to do differently? Who has (or appears to have) the expertise or authority to make good on those promises? Bear in mind the election rules that require publication of each registered party’s list of candidates, in order of importance. The first name on each party list is the automatic candidate for the presidency. Some citizens already feel cheated by this system which allows them no direct choice to choose or discard a particular candidate. Voters are limited to choosing one political party over another, even though the Constitutional Court[1] has ruled that the ballot must show alongside the name and photograph of the candidate for president alongside the party each candidate represents.

There is no rule or legal requirement upon parties and candidates to be truthful. In this Angola is no different from any other nation state calling itself a democracy. Political candidates and speech writers enjoy considerable freedom of speech to make empty promises. Party political manifestos and campaign materials may be designed to misinform. How then can voters discern which party or which politician will serve them best?

It’s not enough to pass laws on freedom of information – independent and diverse sources of information are crucial to sustaining democracy. Pro-government, pro-opposition and partisan media have their place. However, only a well-informed electorate with access to impartial and objective information can hold the powerful to account. Voters need a wide array of sources of information to discern fact from opinion.

Distinctions of political ideology, along with debates over the pros and cons of specific ideas and plans, should be part of a continual and ongoing process, not just the subject of an election campaign. By the time the electoral calendar is announced, it’s the equivalent of firing the starting gun in a race to the finish line. Fitness and form should already have been established.

The vast majority of Angolan citizens have shown forbearance and patience but they want to see substantive and incremental change. They want measurable evidence of progress and development for the benefit of the entire country, not just the enrichment of a political elite, or oligarchy. Can they hope for something other than an election campaign based on fanatical partisan loyalty and the cult of personality?

Election campaigns offer opportunities to bring the powerful and powerless together and to achieve something more than just festive ritual, more than game-show entertainment. They are an opportunity for the electorate to give their verdict on the achievements (or lack thereof) of the past five years, and to select new candidates or parties in whom they place their hope and trust, to do better.

Clearly no government can resolve every problem in the course of a five-year term of office. But in a country like Angola, whose economy is so heavily dependent on the government, it is fundamental to be clear about the goals of each party and the direction in which they want to steer the ship of State. For perhaps the first time since the 1992 elections, Angola has a real chance to determine the kind of state and society it wants to forge hereafter. Is it still in the best interest of the entire country to concentrate power in one party and one party alone? Would a stronger opposition, particularly in the national assembly, be in a better position to curb excesses, refine laws and call the duty-holders to account?

[1] Constitutional Court Ruling 111/2010