Angola’s Presidential Election: A Needed Change Or More Of The Same?

After 38 years under the same president, Angola is finally set to have a new president. Longtime leader Jose Eduardo Dos Santos is stepping down, thus opening up a new chapter of possibilities for the sub-Saharan country.

It seems rare to have a long-time leader voluntarily step down, especially in a country supposedly marred with corruption. Nonetheless, 74-year-old Dos Santos is stepping down “due to his deteriorating health,” according to Alex Vines of the Chatham House think-tank. His chosen successor is Joao Lourenco, his Defence Minister, who “has a reputation for relative probity and is respected by the army.” Lourenco is running as the candidate for the leading People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola party (MPLA), which used to be a Soviet-Union-backed Marxist party in the 1980s, but has transitioned to one that favours capitalism since the end of the civil war in 2002. This ideological transition is due mainly to the vast oil reserves in Angola that made the country and its elite extremely wealthy in the 2000s. Unfortunately, being mainly dependent on oil meant that the price drop in 2014 heavily impacted the country, with its GDP dropping from $126bn in 2014 $89bn in 2016.

Meanwhile, the MPLA’s main opponent is the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola party (UNITA), which was also its opponent on the battlefield during the country’s bloody and extensive civil war. Their candidate is Isaias Samakuva, who told citizens on the campaign trail, “You who are suffering, you who are in poverty, without electricity, without jobs or nothing to eat—change is now.”  Opposition parties have been trying to tap into the public anger toward MPLA, which has left two-thirds of the country living on less than $2 a day. Moreover, UNITA won just 18% of the popular vote in 2012.

Though the election seems set to leave MPLA in power, it still brings the hope of change. Søren Kirk Jensen, an expert on Angola from Chatham House, explains that “it would be extremely surprising if the MPLA loses power, but this is the first time in the past 40 years where there is uncertainty over what happens next.” In fact, a poll, conducted by Brazilian company Sensus Pesquisa e Consultoria, found that MPLA is only expected to get 38% of the votes. Despite this, it would still be “extremely surprising” if they did not win (UNITA is predicted to get 32%, while 26% is said to go to another party CASA-SE). The poll also found that 91% of the 9,000 Angolans thought that Dos Santos’ party acted in their own interest and not in the best interest of the country and its citizens. However, even if his party lost the election, Dos Santos would still have a firm grasp on power.

To expand, while Dos Santos will no longer be the President of Angola, he will remain as president of the MPLA and the Dos Santos name will live on as his children have significant power as well. His daughter Isabel Dos Santos is hailed as Africa’s richest woman and runs the state oil company, while one of his sons heads the sovereign wealth fund of Angola. Thus, even if UNITA were to win this election, the Dos Santos family and the MPLA would still very much be in charge, especially since the powers of the incoming president have already been limited. For example, last month, Parliament passed a law that “prohibits the new president from sacking the heads of the army, police and intelligence services for eight years.” Furthermore, a recent law has given a group run by the government regulatory control over all media. As such, Human Rights Watch states that the elections will happen in an environment that is “marred by severe restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, and limited access to information due to government repression and censorship in state media and in private media outlets controlled by ruling party officials.” These restrictions on free speech and protest may explain why, despite the aforementioned poll’s prediction of a close race, Lourenco is still overwhelmingly expected to win.

With that said, Angola has a population of about 25 million people, 42% of which are under the age of 14; the average age in Angola is 18.2 years old. In addition, Angola is a nation that has been home to one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest civil wars, as well as one of its greatest economic booms. It is also a country whose land provides it with the possibility of prosperity and growth for all, but whose government has too often hoarded it for themselves and the urban elite. As such, it is clear that Angola is young, full of potential, but it is in need of change.