Angola will hold its national general election on 24 August in what is expected to be the closest vote in the country’s post-independence history. The expectation of this highly competitive ballot has raised tensions across the country and heightened fears of violent unrest in the aftermath of the election regardless of the result. More than 80 000 police officers and other assorted security personnel have been deployed to maintain the peace on election day and ahead of the results announcement. However, this security presence is just as likely to aggravate political tensions as it is to discourage protests.
There are many reasons why this election is expected to be a closely run affair, with among the most significant being the drop in the age of the average voter. Because over 60% of Angolans are under the age of 24, a large proportion of the electorate will be voting for the first time. The country’s youth have little connection to the country’s colonial past and struggle for independence and are more concerned about the persistent lack of jobs and opportunities in the country, despite Angola’s substantial mineral wealth. Corruption and inequality have led to widespread dissatisfaction in Angola, especially in the country’s urban areas.
This dissatisfaction – especially among young voters – has provided a boost to the main opposition party the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola/ Portuguese: União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) and its leader Adalberto Costa Junior, who will be contesting his first election at the helm of the party. Costa Junior was elected as the new head of UNITA in 2019 following the resignation of long-time leader Isaías Samakuva. Costa Junior has actively sought to position UNITA as the choice for Angola’s youth and focus the party’s criticism of the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola/Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) on persistent corruption and inequality in the country. The new UNITA leader has also successfully brokered alliances with other opposition parties. This has resulted in the formation of the United Patriotic Front /Frente Patriótica Unida (FPU) with Abel Chivukuvuku, the leader of the PRA-JA Servir Angola party; and Filomena Vieira Lopes, leader of the Bloco Democrático. This unified opposition front has further bolstered Costa Junior’s challenge to President Joao Lourenço.
Costa Junior’s efforts appear to be having an impact. An Afrobarometer survey in May 2022 showed that support for UNITA has increased to 22% from 13% in 2019. This is still behind the 29% of public support reportedly enjoyed by the MPLA, but underscores the extent to which momentum has been with the opposition. Especially given that the survey found almost half of voters were undecided.
Yet despite this, the MPLA is still viewed as likely to retain power. This is because the party has a well-established electoral infrastructure and is good at turning out its base. In addition, the elections are not expected to meet the necessary standard to be considered free and fair. Angola has failed to implement the recommendations of observer missions following the 2017 election which was marked by widespread irregularities, and the voters roll is still compiled by the MPLA-controlled Ministry of Territorial Administration.
The build-up to the election has also been marked by increased state repression of dissent, which saw the international human rights organisation Amnesty International (AI) releasing a statement condemning the election-related state violence.
President Lourenço also views winning this election as an existential matter. Lourenço was the handpicked successor to his predecessor José Eduardo dos Santos who had ruled Angola and the MPLA since 1979. However, after assuming control of the country in 2017, and the MPLA in 2018, Lourenço targeted the Dos Santos family in his corruption crackdown. This was an effort to both shore up electoral support after it became clear voters were frustrated with the ongoing corruption, and loosen the hold the Dos Santos family had on Angola.
This resulted in a temporary boost to Lourenço’s popularity, but stagnant economic growth and persistent state corruption have dented his support. If he fails to win re-election, he will most likely be removed as the head of the MPLA. His political enemies are aware of this, which is why it has been reported that members of the Dos Santos family, including Dos Santos’s daughter Isabel, are believed to be supporting Costa Junior even though he belongs to the archenemy, UNITA.
Lourenço’s position has also been complicated by Dos Santos’s recent death in Spain in July following a long illness. His body was repatriated to Angola on 21 August. Lourenço has sought to use the return of Dos Santos’s remains as an opportunity to rally MPLA support and highlight the party’s struggle credentials. However, the matter is also reminding Dos Santos’s loyalists of Lourenço’s apparent betrayal of the former president. Dos Santos’s death has also diluted much of the public’s memory of his key role in driving corruption and inequality in Angola.
All these factors are combining to create a tense and emotive context for the election. The united opposition feels they are on the cusp of a first-ever victory and the ruling MPLA is desperate to not lose power. Regardless of the outcome, the election result will most likely be challenged, which will be complicated by the perception that the judiciary is largely loyal to the MPLA. As such, there is a strong possibility of protests in the wake of the election results announcements. These protests will likely be violently suppressed by security forces – especially if they are opposition-led. This will likely be compounded by the losing parties refusing to take their seats in the newly elected legislature, leading to a political crisis in the country.