Angola Elections 2022: What Next for the Opposition?
Attempts by Angola’s opposition parties to challenge the result of last month’s elections in the Constitutional Court (Tribunal Constitucional) have faltered, with just a week remaining before the official swearing-in of the MPLA’s João Lourenço as President for a second term. The official election results announced by the National Electoral Commission (Comissão Nacional Eleitoral, CNE) declared victory for the MPLA with 51% of the vote, with UNITA second on 43% – an outcome that reflected voters’ appetite for change. So where does UNITA go from here and how best can it capitalize on the public mood?
Provided Angola’s Constitutional Court certifies the election result, the country’s next President will be sworn in on September 15th. In all likelihood, that will once again be the MPLA candidate, João Lourenço, who faces an uphill battle after the significant setbacks in this election for which many in the party blame him directly. The electoral commission’s results gave the MPLA 51.17% of total votes and UNITA 43.95%. According to UNITA’s parallel count, the opposition would have won 49.5% and the MPLA 48.2%.
And yet, fewer than half Angola’s 14 million electorate turned out to vote and almost half of them voted against the ruling party. Does either party have a clear majority for a mandate? The MPLA suffered a particularly catastrophic loss of support in the capital, Luanda (where UNITA took more than 60% of the vote), with Lourenço trounced even in his own neighbourhood. With a second term already being labelled as a ‘lame duck presidency’, it’s not clear what the MPLA leader can hope to achieve without broader support.
Where does this leave UNITA? On Monday (September 5th) the Constitutional Court rejected, on grounds of jurisdictional incompetence, one of the party’s petitions seeking an annulment of the election result. The judges said UNITA had used a procedure reserved for situations in which no other means were available to safeguard their rights, but in this case the Constitutional Court could only be invoked a last resort, after challenges to any irregularity had been exhausted at each stage of the National Electoral Commission (CNE) process outlined in Angola’s electoral law. A ruling on a second petition by UNITA, requesting the Court order the CNE to publish the vote counts (as required by law), is imminent.
In effect, the Constitutional Court accepted the CNE’s counter argument that these petitions be dismissed for lack of competent jurisdiction and lack of evidence. CNE spokesman Lucas Quilundo asserted that the CNE had analysed the various elements in contention and found, in the specific case of UNITA and the Democratic Bloc, that the evidence did not support their claims.
Less than 48 hours later, (on Wednesday September 7th) a majority of nine out of eleven Constitutional Court judges denied a separate petition challenging the official result, filed by the Broad Convergence for the Salvation of Angola, (Coligação Ampla de Salvação de Angola – Coligação Eleitoral, CASA-CE). CASA-CE had 16 deputies after the 2017 election; the 2022 result gives it none at all.
In a dissenting opinion on the CASA-CE petition, Judge Josefa Neto (who is UNITA’s nominee on the court) said she had been denied access to the original vote tallies (actas síntese) relied upon by the National Electoral Commission (CNE). She called for the CNE to publish the tallies in the interests of proving its impartiality and independence from the ruling MPLA party.
What options remain for the opposition?
ACCEPT THE RESULT
First and foremost, UNITA and the other parties could simply accept the official result. UNITA would then have 90 deputies sitting in the national assembly, Angola’s parliament. Public opinion might not be happy with what some would see as a capitulation, but it would give UNITA considerable sway to effect legislative review, particularly as the 2017 rules and 2021 constitutional review clarified the law to give parliament greater powers to call the executive to account.
If UNITA were to concentrate its efforts on parliamentary work and securing its gains in the future local elections, it would significantly boost its chances of outright victory at the next general election in 2027. As yet, however, there does not appear to be a consensus around this strategy.
APPEAL TO AN INTERNATIONAL COURT
Second, UNITA could take its case to an international court or organization. Recourse to international law, however, would run counter to the principle of national sovereignty. For example, some have argued in favour of making a legal appeal to the African Union. But the African Union is a confederation of independent states, not a federation, and has no means of ensuring any individual country’s compliance with external decisions. Even a supranational organization such as the European Union has no means of forcing compliance on its member states – each individual country has the final say in its own affairs.
International law remains an ideal, rather than a reality. International courts generally operate on a doctrine known as the “Margin of Appreciation”, the margin or latitude for state discretion, the precedent for which was recognized by the European Court of Human Rights in Handyside v United Kingdom (1976). This is a practical acknowledgement that in cases of dispute over convention rights, it is up to each individual state to determine its response to any international court ruling, for there is no international police force or army to ensure compliance. Each member state has a degree of discretion, and the right to set its own limits and restrictions on legislative, administrative or judicial action, with regard to national sovereignty and self-interest.
This seems to indicate that even if UNITA could find an international organization willing to adjudicate its case, it would be highly unlikely that any ruling could override the ‘margin of appreciation’ under which the Angolan government has the right to use its discretion to insist that any electoral challenges are dealt with by its own national organizations.
Third, some are advocating that UNITA and other opposition parties should decline to take their seats in the National Assembly. There is nothing to prevent them from doing this – but it would simply give a free hand to the party of government with no checks or balances. The Angolan Constitution permits the National Assembly to function in plenary session provided one-fifth of the 220 seats are occupied. The example of what happened in Venezuela is illuminating: opposition leader Juan Gaidó tried a similar move after Nicolás Maduro won the election and ended up handing absolute power to Maduro and ruining his own ambitions.
The Angolan Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in parliament to approve any change to the Constitution as well as to approve the appointments of Constitutional Court judges. If UNITA deputies were to abstain from taking their seats, they would simply hand the MPLA the power to appoint every judge and change the constitution at will, e.g., to remove the term limits on sitting presidents which would allow João Lourenço to stand again in 2027 or even beyond. Simply by taking its 90 seats, UNITA forces the MPLA to negotiate senior judicial appointments and/or constitutional changes, an unprecedented opportunity for UNITA to influence the democratization of both the Constitutional Court and other institutions.
INCITE AN UPRISING
At a time of high emotion, some have argued for open revolt – for ‘people power’ to overturn MPLA-dominated institutions by the sheer weight of street protests. This would resolve nothing. Even UNITA’s ‘parallel count’ would not give the party more than 50% of the August 2022 vote. The most optimistic scenario points to a technical draw or a tiny margin of victory for one party over the other. Any uprising would simply set one half of the Angolan people against the other half – the situation that existed in 1975 and which resulted in a 27-year civil war.
Some of those who advocate people power are thinking of the events known as the ‘Arab Spring’ in which some authoritarian governments were overthrown. But what came after them? It could be argued that after the initial euphoria, life got worse for the vast majority. The most likely result of mass protests would be the introduction of an authoritarian state of emergency, with the potential for mass casualties.
Some analysts fear that the loss of face suffered by João Lourenço may lead him to try and adopt a position of false strength – that ordering the armed forces into combat readiness is a signal that he will not tolerate post-election civil disobedience. The MPLA has also deployed its paramilitary PIR Rapid Reaction Police (the ‘ninjas’) in large numbers in Luanda and other cities. In the event of violent confrontation, the MPLA government would have the upper hand. Political actors from afar, posting repeatedly across social media to advocate direct action in support of the main Opposition, will not be the ones risking themselves on the streets.
Lest we forget, the international community is currently preoccupied with Russia’s war in Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis. It is highly unlikely that any of the major powers would want to be drawn into a volatile situation in Angola. Cooler heads at home and abroad are hoping Angola’s political leaders will act quickly to defuse the tension and negotiate an acceptable way forward.