A New Generation of Voters Will Test Angola’s Longtime Governing Party

LUANDA, Angola — A new generation of Angolans, many disillusioned with their country’s political system and corruption, will vote for the first time on Wednesday, posing a challenge to a governing party that has traditionally presented its continued dominance as a stable alternative to the country’s bloody past.

The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, a liberation army turned political party, is expected to win — as it has in four previous elections. But while the result is unlikely to be a surprise, analysts will be watching the margin closely for signs about the country’s political future.

Across southern Africa, historic political movements are falling out of favor among younger urban voters for whom economic obstacles are beginning to outweigh nostalgic rhetoric. In Angola’s capital, Luanda, where streets are named for war heroes, the youths are largely unemployed, as is more than 30 percent of the population.

Half the voters in the country are under 35. Those who do find jobs in Angola, Africa’s second-largest oil producer, work mostly in the informal sector, often as food vendors or motorcycle drivers.

This generation, disaffected by the governing party, is more willing to speak out.

“This will be my first time voting, and I can tell you, I’ve made up my mind really easily,” said Carlos Quitembe, 22, holding up three fingers, a gesture referring to the opposition party’s position on the ballot.

Supporters of the Angolan opposition party the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA.Credit…John Wessels/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The main opposition party, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA, was the wartime foe of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA. The two parties were born as guerrilla movements that drove out Portuguese colonists in 1975 but turned on each other in a bitter civil war that ended in 2002.

UNITA has tried to rebrand itself as a party for urban voters. For the first time, it is led not by a former guerrilla fighter, but by a charismatic former exile, Adalberto Costa Júnior, who returned from Europeand used social media to build his base. Mr. Costa has joined forces with civil society groups, smaller opposition movements and disgruntled members of the governing party on an anticorruption ticket.

The opposition has fielded candidates “representing an open mind to build the future, not a partisan proposal but solutions for the big problems Angola has now,” Mr. Costa said in an interview. That coalition, he said, isheld together by the need to overhaul the electoral system that favors the dominant party.

In Angola’s electoral system, voters cast a single ballot to select their party of choice for provincial and national seats. Card-carrying members of the party decide the list of candidates, and the leader of the winning party becomes president of the country.

UNITA’s leader, Adalberto Costa Júnior, joined a coalition on an anticorruption ticket.Credit…Paulo Novais/EPA, via Shutterstock

President João Lourenço is seeking a second term, asking for more time to make good on his 2017 election promises to fight corruption and build the economy. A former guerrilla fighter who later became defense minister, Mr. Lourenço was handpicked by the longtime President José Eduardo dos Santos as his successor. Once in power, Mr. Lourenço turned on Mr. dos Santos, blaming his administration for Angola’s economic malaise. He prosecuted one of Mr. dos Santos’s children for corruption and tried to charge another.

But as the economy stagnated, this tactic began to backfire, as people directed their anger at Mr. Lourenço, dismissing his anticorruption efforts as factional fighting instead of real reform. Mr. Lourenço’s party has also leaned on nostalgia forits glory years as a liberation movement, analysts said. After Mr. dos Santos died last month, a fight ensued between some of his adult children and his widow, backed by the government, over where to bury his body.

Mr. Lourenço’s office did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

His party, which has been in power since 1975, controls the state and its budget. State media spotlights the governing party, while the constitutional court is packed with pro-MPLA justices. This is why Angola’s election is unlikely to be free or fair, said Borges Nhamirre, a consultant with the Institute of Security Studies, headquartered in South Africa.

Angolans mourning the death of former President José Eduardo dos Santos in Luanda last week.Credit…Paulo Novais/EPA, via Shutterstock

A June poll by the Mudei Civic Movement, a citizen-based election monitoring group, found the MPLA trailing by 19percentage points behind the opposition coalition, while an earlier poll by the continental research group Afrobarometer showed the MPLA winning by its lowest margin yet.

In response, a state-owned broadcaster conducted its own poll, which showed the governing party far ahead of its rival. In May, the MPLA majority in Parliament passed a law restricting polling, forcing polling agencies to pay large sums of money as purported assurance of their legitimacy.

The voters’ roll is also packed with the names of dead people, opposition groups and civil society groups say.

“My brother and I were shocked to find out that our father, who died nine years ago, is registered to vote,” said Adérito Malungo, who plans to vote in Luanda.

Any demonstrations in the face of these irregularities are likely to face a bloody crackdown, according to scenarios mapped out by security analysts, as the military and the police are firmly controlled by MPLA loyalists. Results will begin trickling in within the first 24 hours after the vote, but it is unclear when the final tally will be announced.

Unlike in previous years, Angolans in the capital seem more willing to talk about their political choices ahead of the election. On a weekday afternoon in Luanda, Mr. Quitembe and two friends — all preparing to vote for the first time, all unemployed and all under the age of 30 — discussed their options.

“Right now, I would rather have been working if someone had kept his promise to create 500,000 jobs for the youth,” said Martins Lourenço, 21, referring to the president’s 2017 election promise.

The port of Luanda. Angola’s state oil company has been plagued by years of mismanagement, analysts say.Credit…John Wessels/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But the president maintained some support.

“Things are pretty bad right now and I know it, but I think we should give the benefit of the doubt and keep JLo,” said Arminda Kisanga, 28, using the president’s nickname. “These weren’t easy years for him up there.”

Mr. Quitembe scoffed at the party’s promises of reform. “Do you truly believe these guys stopped looting our money?” he asked, laughing. “They only changed some people; it’s all the same.”

Angola’s economy has dipped in and out of recession since Mr. Lourenço took over the reins of the party in 2017 and then the country a year later. Under Mr. dos Santos, Angola experienced a postwar boom propelled by oil and diamond exports. The country went on an infrastructure-construction spree, building megaprojects like a new Parliament, often with loans from Chinese banks.

As new skyscrapers appeared on Luanda’s skyline, slums around the city grew, creating an economically unequal society where the vast majority of the population lived below the poverty line.

The vast majority of Angola’s population lived below the poverty line.Credit…John Wessels/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Last year, Angola’s public debt was 110 percent of its gross domestic product, said Francisco Paulo, a Luanda-based economist. Years of mismanaging the state oil company meant that Angola missed out on the profits other oil producers reaped after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Paulo said.

Recently built roads and bridges have fallen into decay, driving up the cost of goods, as transportation has become more expensive, particularly in rural areas. Mr. Lourenço’s previous election promises to root out corruption and overhaul the economy have not been fulfilled.

“In terms of the economic outlook, there is no reason for people to vote for the M.P.L.A. again,” Mr. Paulo said.

But many have benefited from the party.

Nova Cidade de Kilamba, a housing projectjust outside Luanda, was once a feather in the government’s cap. In the decade since it opened, the project has fallen into decay.

Still, some like Maura Gouveia, a 26-year-old engineering student and a resident of the project, said she trusted the stability of the party.

“I vote for continuity,” she said.

Experts say that Angola’s election is unlikely to be free or fair.Credit…John Wessels/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
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