LUANDA, ANGOLA —
On Wednesday, Angola’s longtime president did something he hasn’t done in decades: He voted for someone else.
Just after 9 a.m., retiring President Jose Eduardo dos Santos shuffled slowly through a side entrance of Luanda’s polling station 1047, at the law school named after his predecessor, Angola’s first president, Agostinho Neto, who died in 1979.
After dos Santos cast his ballot, he slowly shuffled out, accompanied by his entourage. The 74-year-old head of state and government did not speak to reporters and ignored VOA’s question about whom he had voted for.
But he has made his choice clear.
“I am here,” dos Santos told a massive crowd during the final pre-election rally of the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, “to support our candidate.”
And as a man accused of bending this oil-rich nation to his will for 38 years, it’s likely his chosen successor, Defense Minister Joao Lourenco, will prevail. The MPLA was widely predicted to win Wednesday’s election to choose a new National Assembly, whose 220 members will elect the next president.
Voting was calm, orderly
Observers and the electoral commission said the election was calm and orderly. Unofficial results could emerge by Friday, but full, official voting results may not be available until next month.
“I think that the election was very much peaceful, orderly, and the act started on time and closed on time” observer Joaquim Chissano, Mozambique’s former president, told VOA at a polling station in the capital. He also said the vote was “very free, indeed.”
The preliminary results Chissano observed at a polling station in central Luanda showed the ruling party winning by a comfortable margin. However, the two main opposition parties — the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA, and Broad Convergence for the Salvation of Angola Electoral Coalition, or CASA-CE — have complained about irregularities during preparations for the vote.
They accused the ruling party of using government vehicles and resources for campaigning and said it received preferential treatment by the state broadcaster. The MPLA has denied any irregularities.
Africa’s No. 2 oil producer
Angola is Africa’s second-largest oil producer, but the next president will inherit a country beset by high unemployment and inflation so dire that the black-market exchange rate for dollars is twice the official rate. Dos Santos has repeatedly been accused of flagrant corruption, and his children run several powerful state enterprises. Meanwhile, the majority of Angola’s 28 million people live in grinding poverty, without basic services.
Anger over this inequality propelled many voters to act, like Esperanca Francisco Domingos, 42: “Today is my first time voting, because I was never interested in voting and I never knew the value of voting.
“And today, I voted for change,” Domingos said. “I voted for change because everybody says that we have to vote for change. ... And let’s see, as time goes by, if our lives change. Because we haven’t seen any change and we are suffering.”
Others, like 62-year-old Maria Boaventura, were more optimistic as they cast their ballots.
“I think there are better prospects,” she said. “It seems that there will be more transparency.”
Many first-time voters
Angola’s population is young, with a median age of just more than 18 years, and growing rapidly. Many of the 9.3 million registered voters were casting ballots for the first time.
Investors feel the next president must take steps to boost the private sector, implement fiscal reforms and improve transparency.
“While we expect broad continuity, investors will be hoping to see further measures to improve transparency and boost the private sector,” said Stuart Culverhouse, global head of macro and fixed income research at Exotix Capital, an investment bank specializing in “frontier and emerging markets.”
Culverhouse said Angola needs fiscal reforms, along with “an exchange-rate adjustment to correct macro imbalances built up since the decline in oil prices.”
Voters said one of their main interests was ending the high level of perceived corruption. A 65-year-old casting his ballot, Adolfo Macuanga, condemned the dos Santos family’s lavish lifestyle and the government’s failure to support Angolans who fought during the 27-year civil war that ended in 2002.
War veterans say, ‘We have nothing’
“His son bought an $5,000 watch in London,” Macuanga said of President dos Santos. “And those of us who fought for the country, what do we have? Nothing.”
Economic issues have been the focus of debate among the six political parties contesting the election. MPLA’s Lourenco has promised to diversify the economy to reduce the dominance of the oil sector, which accounts for 45 percent of Angola’s gross domestic product and 95 percent of its export revenues. The leading opposition UNITA party has pledged to crack down on corruption and welcome foreign investment.
But for many voters, this election also marked a novel opportunity, to do as the president did: vote for someone new.
“It is an ambitious election,” said 55-year-old Joao Malungo, adding: “I am honored to vote in my country.”