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Vol 63 No 17

Published 25th August 2022


A tale of two elections

Alongside the conventional official campaign, the MPLA is working behind the scenes, insiders say, to manipulate the result in its favour

The opposition to the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) government is enjoying its strongest popular support ever, posing an unprecedented challenge in the 24 August general election. Opinion pollster Afrobarometer gave the MPLA only a 7% lead over the opposition União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) in May, and many suspect the gap has narrowed since, with video of immense crowds at opposition rallies circulating on social media.

But the ruling party has controlled every aspect of the Angolan state and society since independence from Portugal in 1974, including the democratic process since multiparty elections in 1992. Many oppositionists and pundits believe the party cannot, and will not, allow the possibility of defeat.

Senior MPLA figures are believed to be working on how to manage any backlash that could follow its victory. Police and security services are already on alert to ensure that protests do not get out of hand. A parallel ruling party apparatus is at work in the background ensuring the MPLA does not lose, ruling party sources say (see Box, The shadow campaign machine).

The public face of the MPLA campaign, President João Lourenço, has refused to engage the opposition directly, having declined invitations for public debate. He has done this partly, insiders say, because he believes he does not need to, and partly because he disdains UNITA leader Adalberto Costa Júnior, who has been fiercely critical of Lourenço's five years as president (AC Vol 63 No 12, Why UNITA could cause an upset in August).

The President nurtures a feeling of deep resentment about inheriting a downward-spiralling economy in his first term, due to the fall in oil production and prices on which the country relies, MPLA sources say. He apparently also sees the pandemic, with its recession and financial woes, as further bad luck for him.

But the war in Ukraine has brought about a sudden and unexpected reversal in his party's and the economy's fortunes. The windfall from the surge in oil prices after the Russian invasion has filled Lourenço's electoral war chest to bursting, as unofficial conduits channel oil income to the MPLA. It is also helping the economy and with the IMF the government is trying to chart a route out of its severe foreign debt crisis.

Election coverage by state media is a reliable mix of pro-government or pro-MPLA news, with a strong focus on Lourenço, along with positive news about the country in general. Airtime for the opposition is scarce after previously nominally independent TV stations, such as TV Zimbo, were taken over by the state. Officially, the takeovers are part of a judicial process to return to public ownership private assets that were improperly built up with public funds. But the result has been to orient broadcast editorial coverage even more closely to the ruling party.

When not broadcasting 'good news' about the MPLA, all major TV stations carry stories about the strength and dependability of the electoral process and its institutions. To demonstrate the government's commitment to strong institutions Lourenço inaugurated an expensive new headquarters for the Comissão Nacional Eleitoral (CNE – electoral commission) on the eve of the start of the electoral campaign.

The ruling party's managers are aware, however, that the media is not the whole story, and that the public can see for itself the huge crowds at opposition rallies. UNITA's Luanda rally on 22 August was clearly attended by several tens of thousands of supporters, footage of which have been widely shared on social media, and the MPLA has gone to great lengths to try to match the numbers at its events.

Especially in parts of the country where UNITA support is strongest, such as Huambo and Menongue, the MPLA has been bringing in party members and supporters, incentivised by money and gifts, on a fleet of 200 recently acquired buses.

At one Luanda MPLA rally in July there were clashes with the police, as protesting motorcycle taxi and courier riders tried to make their way to the presidential palace to complain that they had not been paid for their attendance at a rally. Some burned the MPLA shirts with Lourenço's face on them with which they had been issued.

The opposition is in an electoral alliance called the Frente Patriótica Unida (FPU-United Patriotic Front) bringing together, as well as UNITA, Abel Chivukuvuku's PRA-JA Servir Angola movement and Bloco Democrático (AC Vol 63 No 1, The opposition sees a new chance). Enormous crowds have been seen gathering on the outskirts of towns and cities throughout the country.

FPU leaders are discouraged, however, not only by expectations of a 'stolen' election, but by the possibility that their mostly young supporters will turn to violence if an MPLA victory is announced. This would give the government the chance to deflect criticism of electoral fraud by blaming 'terrorists' for the violence and congratulating itself for restoring order.

FPU leaders are also dismayed that calls by the international community, especially in the west, for free and fair elections have been more muted than in previous elections.

Western chancelleries want to woo Angola away from Russia, as oil and gas increase in geopolitical as well as economic value, and may be anxious not to antagonise Luanda. The MPLA has sentimental ties to Russia, which supported it in the civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s, and Angola abstained in the UN General Assembly vote in March condemning the Russian invasion (AC Vol 63 No 6, Pragmatism rules as African states navigate Cold War II).

MPLA officials appear more confident than ever, both about the poll result and the probability there will be no significant violence. Luanda's new prominence in international affairs and its improved economic fortunes are two reasons for the spring in MPLA officials' step, but the other is the grip of the President on the electoral process (see Box, The shadow campaign machine).

But the opposition is not sitting still. It plans to sit, literally. Under a plan called 'voted, seated', the FPU is asking voters to remain outside the polling stations after they have cast their votes. The hope is that the numbers seen outside the stations will present a stark contract to any results officially announced which claim far smaller numbers, as well as to 'guard' the ballot boxes.

Both this and a civil society effort to mount a parallel vote count have been outlawed by the CNE.

Observer missions from the international Lusophone organisation, the Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa (CPLP), the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), are present and are expected to follow their record in other controversial elections and give the poll a clean bill of health.

The CNE has also invited individual observers, including three Portuguese politicians with strong pro-MPLA records, Carlos César, Paulo Portas and José Luís Arnaut, some of whom have links to companies with contracts with the Angolan government.

Fears of unrest
The MPLA believes any protests in the wake of the election can be contained but it does worry that large-scale unrest could affect the government's standing in the international community and among investors. The concerns are strong enough for the presidency to have decided against deploying troops, for fear of provoking the public. They will, however, be in a 'state of readiness', according to documents seen by Africa Confidential.

The force expected to handle public order will be the Polícia de Intervenção Rápida (PIR). At the same time, we hear, units of the intelligence service, the Serviços de Informação and Serviço de Inteligência e de Segurança de Estado (SINSE), which has played a role in past elections, is carrying out covert operations in conjunction with MPLA cadres to identify individual agitators to co-opt or discourage them.

The state funeral for José Eduardo dos Santos, whose remains were returned on 20 August with no ceremony, will take place after the election. In the likely scenario of an MPLA victory called by the CNE, the commemorations will help Lourenço. He went to great lengths to have his predecessor's body returned to Luanda although it meant clashing openly with the Dos Santos clan, especially his daughters Isabel and Welwitschia or 'Tschizé', who stood by him in his Barcelona exile and tried to prevent his body going back to Angola.

The shadow campaign machine

The parallel electoral machine in the presidency is headed by President João Lourenço's right-hand man, the head of the Civil Cabinet, Edeltrudes Costa (AC Vol 61 No 3, Mounting protests face police violence). He is backed by the Minister of Territorial Administration, Marcy Lopes, and a discreet but influential general, Rogério Ferreira. The CNE, and particularly its president, Manuel Pereira da Silva ('Manico'), answers directly to them, we hear.

Ferreira is one of the country's top IT specialists. In the 2017 elections he directed a parallel polling centre installed in the presidency. He recently returned to the Military Cabinet of the Presidency, after being removed at the beginning of Lourenço's term.

At the centre of the electoral process is INDRA, a Spanish company that has run several elections for the CNE (AC Vol 58 No 13, The ghost of elections past  & Vol 63 No 9, Alarm grows over vote-rigging plans). The electoral roll is not a public document, and has not been updated for some considerable time, meaning thousands of deceased people are still 'able' to vote. And the opposition believes they will – for the MPLA. Indra denies any role in electoral manipulation.

Because the count is centralised, ballot boxes could be replaced on their way to the counting centre. There is also suspicion that results transmitted from polling stations by digital means could be manipulated. Sources familiar with previous Angolan elections say that the current MPLA machine is more 'sophisticated and refined' than previously. They believe this is reflective of the regime's awareness of its unpopularity and the need to prevent 'unforeseen events'.

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