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Can Angola’s new president get rid of corruption and revive his party’s reputation?

- August 3, 2018
Angolan President João Lourenço, left, and his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma meet in Luanda, Angola, on Nov. 21 2017. (GCIS/AP)

Angola’s President João Lourenço has been making a great show lately of advocating for free and fair elections in nearby countries. Following a canceled summit in July, Lourenço met with Congo leader Joseph Kabila this week to discuss the upcoming December elections — presumably to encourage Kabila to keep with constitutional term limits and hold to his promise to abstain from running. And Lourenço sent officials to observe Zimbabwe’s July 30 elections, knowing they would be volatile.

So, is Angola a model of electoral democracy? Hardly. Lourenço helms a government with a record of political repression and electoral fraudulence.

Elected in 2017 with the slogan “improve what’s good, correct what’s bad,” Lourenço is the first new president the nation has had in 38 years. As his ruling party faces a legitimacy crisis, Lourenço has an opportunity to introduce greater levels of fairness and transparency into his country’s electoral practices.

Angola’s elections are imperfect

While the country holds multiparty elections, Angola is far from a liberal democracy, according to widely accepted Freedom House measures. It has been ruled by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) since gaining independence in 1975. To achieve this, political scientist Jon Schubert argues, the MPLA ruling party uses elections to “play by the rules of democracy, while in practice . . . subvert and change its meaning.”

Take, for example, the 2017 general elections.

Early evidence of electoral fraud emerged when the Angolan National Electoral Commission (CNE) declared a landslide victory for the MPLA well before tallies had been completed in several key voting districts — and before any vote counts had arrived at the national ballot office. The Constitutional Court summarily dismissed appeals by the main opposition political parties, UNITA and CASA-CE, citing a general lack of evidence.

More generally, opposition parties in Angola face a systematic process of exclusion. During the 2017 election season, police and other government security forces regularly confronted any political opposition with violence, arresting political activists and beating and setting dogs on peaceful demonstrators. Since the vast majority of public and private media firms are controlled by the MPLA, local media coverage was highly biased toward the ruling party. Finally, the state regularly subsidizes the MPLA with upward of $50 million a year to offset campaign operation costs.

In short, the MPLA does not compete in elections just as a political party but as what political scientists Justin Pearce, Didier Péclard, and Ricardo Soares de Oliveira call a “party-state.

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The MPLA is having a crisis of legitimacy

And yet even with these advantages, the MPLA limped out of last year’s elections. According to the official count, the MPLA received 61 percent of the popular vote, down from 81 percent in 2008 and 72 percent in 2012. These numbers were hotly contested. MPLA leadership was particularly concerned about losing the popular vote in Angola’s capital, Luanda — the ruling party’s historic base, and home to nearly a third of the country’s population. Behind this drop in support is the MPLA’s simmering crisis of legitimacy, rooted in two related factors: political corruption and violations of human rights.

Political corruption. Transparency International, an anti-corruption nongovernmental organization based in Berlin, ranks Angola among the world’s most corrupt governments. And in 2017, a poll conducted by Brazilian company Sensus Pesquisa e Consultoria and commissioned by Angola’s president found that 91 percent of more than 9,000 survey respondents believed the MPLA leadership “acts in its own interest, and not in the best interest of the state or the people at large.”

Despite representing the MPLA, Lourenço has been waging a very public campaign against the country’s rampant corruption, a deep-seated system of party patronage historically fueled by the country’s vast oil and diamond resources. Within months of his inauguration, the president’s administration replaced high-ranking people in the Angolan military and economic sectors, including members of the dos Santos family. More recently, Lourenço has stated intentions to open up the economy to foreign investment, including significant changes to the long-secretive diamond industry. In the midst of this rhetoric, half of Angolans live on less than $3 a day, and 60 percent of the country’s wealth is held by the top 20 percent of the population.

Human rights. State security forces are known for extrajudicial uses of force to crack down on dissenters and political opposition groups. Recently, that has included assaulting unarmed political protesters, publicly executing civilians and arresting political activists.

According to the Human Rights Measurement Initiative, an expert-led venture that records countries’ human rights practices, the Angolan government also scores poorly in its respect for social and economic rights. Spending just over 3 percent of gross domestic product on health care and education, the government’s total investment in these areas is comparable to that of countries with less than half of its resources, such as Sierra Leone. Despite being one of the largest economies in sub-Saharan Africa, Angola ranks 150 of 188 countries in the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

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Looking ahead

Angolans have begun demanding change. In the years leading up to Lourenço’s election, organized protests and online activism campaigns were becoming more common — all calling for better governance. Pearce, Péclard and Soares de Oliveira state that, “The current goodwill shown by many Angolans towards Lourenço would quickly dissipate if he is not seen to deliver, and the MPLA’s crisis of legitimacy would likely reassert itself with a vengeance.”

As Angolans become more frustrated and opposition parties gain momentum, the MPLA has been allowing a changing of the guard. Former president José Eduardo dos Santos is currently MPLA chairman but is scheduled to step down in September. Dos Santos would almost certainly be replaced by Lourenço, whose candidacy is currently unopposed.

With the 2020 local and 2022 national elections on the horizon, Lourenço is now tasked with improving the MPLA’s performance at the ballot box. Doing so may hinge on his ability to “correct what’s bad” quickly enough to convince voters that the ruling party’s interests extend beyond the political elite. Transparency and fairness in electoral practices might be a good place to start.

Correction: An earlier version of this post gave the wrong year for Angola’s independence. We regret the error.

Austin Doctor (@austincdoctor) is a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia, where he studies international relations and comparative politics.