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Angola’s election: irregularity and continuity amid growing dissatisfaction

8 August 2022

Angola’s election is predicted to be the closest contest since the end of the civil war. President João Lourenço is seeking to win a second term in the general elections on 24 August. Angola’s president and the ruling party, Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), face a more unified opposition coalition led by the main historical opposition party, União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), and its presidential candidate, Adalberto Costa Júnior (ACJ). The death of Angola’s former president and long term political strongman, José Eduardo dos Santos, last month has added further complication and intrigue in the run up to this month’s election.

The MPLA has been in power since independence in 1975 and has decisively won every election since multi-party elections were introduced in 1992. Although there is a degree of certainty over an MPLA victory, commentary around Angola’s election this year has departed from the usual discussion of the inevitability of the MPLA securing the presidency and a parliamentary supermajority (as has been the case in the previous four election cycles). Growing support for UNITA and fatigue for MPLA rule have grown since Lourenço became president in 2017, making Angola’s post-election political trajectory more uncertain.


Image: Ver Angola

The MPLA faces a more organised opposition

The build up to the election has been characterised by the perceived growth in support for UNITA. Electoral laws preventing opinion polls complicate quantifying the exact level of popular political support for the Frente Patriótica Unida (FPU) – the opposition alliance fronted by UNITA and ACJ. However, a poll conducted by Afrobarometer in May indicated that the MPLA held just a seven-point lead, although almost half of the 1,200 respondents declined to provide a preference. By Angolan standards, this is close. For contrast, the MPLA won the 2017 general election by 34-points over UNITA, which was then campaigning alone. Other barometers of dissatisfaction with government, such as notable instances of industrial action and protests, have also suggested growing opposition to the MPLA.

The UNITA-led coalition and ACJ have benefitted from growing apathy towards the MPLA – part of a broader theme across Africa towards parties of independence or revolution. Angola’s electorate now has a material portion of voters who do not have memories of the Angolan Civil War (1975-2002). This new cross-section of the election do not extol the MPLA’s role in securing Angola’s independence nor have especially hostile views towards UNITA’s prior role as a violent, South African-backed armed opposition group. Moreover, Lourenço’s last five years have been punctuated by an economic downturn and a widespread perception that he has failed to meet expectations. In part, this perceived poor performance is the result of factors beyond Lourenço’s control, namely the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is ACJ’s first election as UNITA’s candidate. His appointment is a major departure from the leadership of the party’s historical post-civil war opposition candidate, Isaías Samakuva. ACJ replaced Samakuva in 2019, bringing renewed energy to the party and a break from the old guard of UNITA from the civil war.

ACJ has been able to play more of a popular opposition leader role. He brings more charisma and broader appeal than his predecessor, with a far more presidential character than Samakuva. His profile as a mixed-race Angolan has distinguished him from UNITA’s civil war old guard and undermined the MPLA’s historical narrative that UNITA is a tribal organisation with limited appeal beyond the Ovimbundu highlands and the sparsely populated east. UNITA has gained support in large urban areas, including Luanda, and among new constituents, such as urban youths excluded from Angola’s post-war economic ‘miracle’.

Under ACJ, UNITA has also united the opposition, forming an election coalition with the Bloco Democrático and Pra-Já servir Angola, in October 2021, and providing a potential electoral umbrella for the flourishing of small political parties and civil society organisations that have emerged in urban areas over the past ten years. The threat this unified opposition presents to MPLA’s election chances is evidenced by the concerted legal efforts the MPLA have put into disrupting it and ACJ.

The threat of a more united, competent and (most importantly) popular opposition has unnerved the MPLA in the build-up to the election. The MPLA has not been afraid to flex its influence – both formally and informally – in order to complicate life for UNITA. For example, in October 2021 Angola’s constitutional court annulled ACJ’s accession to UNITA’s leadership on the grounds of his past dual Angolan-Portuguese citizenship. ACJ was subsequently re-elected as UNITA leader in December last year. More recently, in May 2022, the constitutional court ruled that the FPU was not a legally constituted political party or coalition and therefore it was not eligible to stand for election on behalf of the entity. This injunction has not stopped the constituent parts of the FPU campaigning as a unified group. The message to Angola’s electorate that there is a unified opposition that presents an alternative to MPLA has been clear. However, how it will affect voting at the ballot box remains to be seen.

Free and fair elections remain unlikely

The MPLA will almost certainly walk away from the election with a parliamentary majority and Lourenço will serve a second term. However, the election is unlikely to be free and fair, with the results expected to require some level of massaging. The ruling party retains the ability to obstruct the election result, with observers raising concerns over the inclusion of ghost voters, the potential manipulation of tabulation and partisan intervention from Angola’s constitutional court.

The final election numbers will contribute to how the election outcome is received by voters. A close result, a suspiciously wide margin, or allegations of irregularities – such as a discrepancy in voting preferences for the presidency and national assembly – will heighten the risk of popular protests and undermine the legitimacy of the result. The typical playbook would be for UNITA to challenge the outcome, resulting in instability and disruption in the immediate aftermath of the election – very different to Lourenço’s honeymoon period after 2017’s elections. In the event of protests, there is a high risk that demonstrations will be violently repressed. International condemnation of the results and a call for a re-count is unlikely. However, how the government handles the aftermath of the election will impact its international standing.

While a close result would likely limit popular dissatisfaction, it would undermine Lourenço’s ability to unite the MPLA under his leadership and authority in his second term. There are strong internal divisions in the MPLA. For example, there have been rumours that some MPLA figures are funding UNITA’s election campaign as part of protest against Lourenço. A close result may leave Lourenço weak within the party and therefore curtail his ability to enact his policy agenda in his second term.

What next for Angola?

The election is unlikely to affect major change on Angola’s political trajectory. Continuity is likely and is reassuring to investors. Any major reinvention of Lourenço’s priorities, at home or abroad, is unlikely.

Given the MPLA’s internal dynamics and the strength of entrenched patronage networks in Angola the fight against corruption is likely to continue, but will not be as radical or as rapid as was hoped in the aftermath of the 2017 election. Investor friendly reform and the privatisation agenda will continue to be implemented, but the pace of change will be slow and elements of dos Santos’ kleptocratic state and MPLA patronage networks will remain intact or repurposed for the Lourenço government. If this slow-paced reform does not lead to economic growth that benefits all Angolans, then support for UNITA is expected to grow throughout Lourenço’s second term.

Looking beyond Angola and retaining his grip on power domestically, Lourenço’s priority remains improving relations with the West, particularly the US. Building the trust of the international community and securing Western investment into Angola – outside of the traditional oil and mining sectors – will remain a priority in the coming five years. Lourenço is expected to continue to look West for support (and investment) in his second term, while maintaining stable relations with China, Angola’s largest creditor, and without breaking ties with Russia, which has traditionally been a key military partner.

Delivering inclusive economic growth and improving day-to-day life for Angolans is critical for the MPLA over the next five years. If unchecked high unemployment and economic stagnation will drive further dissatisfaction with the MPLA. Such popular dissatisfaction poses a greater risk now that UNITA is a far more organised and popular entity with an ability to channel popular dissatisfaction into political opposition. This is evident through the growth of youth-led anti-government protests under Lourenço. There is potential for popular unrest both in the wake of the election and throughout the next five years if the underlying economic situation does not improve.

Sofala Partners’ team of Angola experts, based in both Luanda and London, have supported clients across a range of sectors in Angola. We have provided intelligence-led insights to inform clients’ understanding of the political economy dynamics dictating the policy and reform agenda in priority sectors in Angola (agriculture, renewable energy, financial services and natural resources), as well as providing enhanced due diligence support to investors looking to execute transactions in Angola.

For further insights and analysis, or to better understand how Sofala Partners can support your business, please email info@sofalapartners.com

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