UNITA shakes the foundations of MPLA rule in Angola

The opposition made huge gains in last week’s elections, but now it faces tough choices.

The near defeat of the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in last week’s general legislative elections has created hope and uncertainty about the country’s future.

The MPLA squeaked home with an official 51% of the vote to the 44% of its old civil war enemy and later political rival, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). UNITA contested the election as part of a de facto coalition with PRA-JA Servir Angola and the Democratic Bloc.

Many observers, and UNITA itself, believe the National Election Commission (CNE), which the MPLA controls, doctored the outcomes. UNITA challenged them with the electoral body and is expected to announce its own parallel voter tabulation. The CNE parried UNITA’s objection – saying it was submitted too late – and promptly released the results the next day. So it seems UNITA will resort to the Constitutional Court.

But even the official result was a stunning setback for the MPLA and a huge psychological boost for the opposition. In the 2017 elections, the MPLA won 61% and UNITA only 26.67%. In slashing the ruling party’s majority by 27% last week, UNITA and its United Patriotic Front coalition delivered its best election result thus far. This was by far the MPLA’s worst performance since multiparty democracy began in 1992.

UNITA also completely swept Luanda, beating the MPLA by about 63% to 33%. The opposition party radically transformed itself from a rural, traditionalist and provincial party under its late founder Jonas Savimbi, into an urban party supported by young people.

This was by far the MPLA’s worst performance since multiparty democracy began in 1992

UNITA’s dynamic new leader Adalberto Costa Júnior gets much credit for this about-turn. But the MPLA’s failure to address grinding poverty, which is in many ways worse in the city, also played a role.

The ball is now in UNITA’s court. The CNE could refuse any re-appraisal of the election, and the Constitutional Court – also partisan – could uphold the MPLA’s victory. UNITA might then demand an international observer team visits Angola to verify the official results against those calculated by UNITA and civil society groups like Mudei, which also believes UNITA won.

What will UNITA do if this fails, as it probably will? In 2017, the party’s leaders were criticised for accepting defeat and taking up their seats in Parliament after the Constitutional Court rejected their challenge. Should it resort to the streets this time?

Independent Angolan expert Paula Cristina Roque told ISS Today that if UNITA called its supporters to march on the presidential palace, ‘there’ll be a massive wave of popular support that will put pressure on [President João] Lourenço and the MPLA.’ The problem is that although the march would probably be peaceful, ‘they will be received with violence … not rubber bullets … live ammunition. And that’s what everyone wants to avoid.’

UNITA transformed itself from a rural, traditionalist party into an urban party supported by the youth

So Roque suggests another possibility – that UNITA uses its potential for mass mobilisation as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from the MPLA. The main goal would be to pressure the government to allow local elections, particularly in Luanda. Angola’s constitution provides for these polls, and UNITA has been demanding them since the end of the civil war. ‘But for 20 years the MPLA has been dragging its feet,’ Roque says.

The reasons are probably the MPLA’s desire for total power and more recently, its suspicion that UNITA was gaining support in Luanda. Local government elections could allow the opposition to translate a symbolic victory in the capital into real power – even if only municipal – and demonstrate its ability to govern. The same could apply in other cities.

However Borges Nhamirre, an Institute for Security Studies consultant, remains sceptical of UNITA winning even this consolation prize. He suspects that if local elections did happen, the MPLA could still rig them like it apparently rigged the national vote.

Nhamirre cites the example of Mozambique, where the main opposition party, Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), always wins the most votes in five central and northern provinces in the general elections. ‘But when local elections finally took place, RENAMO voters magically began to “vote” for [ruling party] FRELIMO candidates. In provinces such as Zambézia, Nampula and Sofala, where RENAMO always won the most votes in the general elections … when it came time to elect governors, RENAMO lost them all.’

Will the MPLA retreat even further from democracy to avoid another embarrassing near defeat?

If UNITA eventually gets to govern Luanda, would the MPLA allow it to do so unobstructed? Or would it sabotage the opposition party as the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has done to prevent the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) from governing Harare?

Angola’s 2022 elections have shown that the MPLA is rapidly becoming a rural party. This follows a downward trend evident in other former liberation movements now in government, such as ZANU-PF and South Africa’s African National Congress.

So far no one seems to be talking, at least publicly, about the MPLA dropping Lourenço as its presidential candidate because of the party’s poor performance. It presumably could, since he is indirectly elected by Parliament.

Roque observes that Lourenço’s position is ‘very fragile. The MPLA is deeply divided. He doesn’t have the support of many of the old guard. He doesn’t have the support of the generals. So he’s in a situation where he has disgruntled members of the security apparatus, disgruntled members of the political elite, and a very strong opposition.’

Roque believes that UNITA’s challenge of the election results will fail. But the MPLA will then have to undertake drastic reforms to avoid an even larger defeat in 2027 that might be too difficult to conceal. ‘They will have to start governing properly,’ she says. This requires tackling corruption generally and not just targeting political rivals like the Dos Santos family, as Lourenço has done so far. And fundamentally, it means tackling poverty.

The danger, as Nhamirre fears, is that the MPLA will merely continue to manipulate elections so its leaders can keep enriching themselves by looting Angola’s vast resources. And perhaps the ruling party might also retreat even further from democracy to avoid another embarrassing near defeat.

One recalls Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections when ZANU-PF made the tactical error of allowing the MDC to win. That error was soon corrected, and since then, the ruling party has been steadily but systematically dismembering the MDC.

None of Southern Africa’s former liberation movements in government has yet conceded power – so it’s hard to imagine any of them doing so.

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

Image: © John Wessels/AFP

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