Angola went to the polls on Wednesday in a general election that, when the results are released in the coming days, will likely prove to be both transformative and inconsequential. It will be transformative because Angola’s incumbent president, José Eduardo dos Santos, has decided not to stand as his party’s candidate, meaning this election will bring an end to his 38 year tenure. It will likely be inconsequential, however, because the result was decided when dos Santos hand-picked João Lourenço to be his successor in December, long before voters went to the polls. Thus this election marks a transition of power that will unquestionably bring change to Angola. What is questionable, on the other hand, is how much change it will bring.
Angola, a large country of about 29 million inhabitants on Africa’s Southwestern coast, has been led by José Eduardo dos Santos since 1979. The country became independent from Portugal in 1975, but it immediately thereafter plunged into a civil war as rival groups fought to control it. It was ultimately dos Santos’ political party, the marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), that formed the government. The war dragged on, however, eventually becoming a proxy of the Cold War, as the main rebel group, UNITA, continued to fight with the support of the United States and South Africa. The war finally came to an end in 2002, when UNITA’s leader was killed and the group turned itself into a political party.
The first post-civil war elections came in 2008, and UNITA, transformed into the largest opposition party, won only 10% of the vote and 16 seats, as opposed to the MPLA’s 82% and 191 seats. Another vote in 2012 yielded similar results, with UNITA winning 32 seats and the MPLA 175. Part of the MPLA’s massive lead can be attributed to its repressive policies. According to Freedom House, suppression of protests, restrictions on freedom of speech, and unequal access to state-owned media all contributed to the MPLA’s electoral advantage. When dos Santos announced he would retire from politics in March 2016, it was widely acknowledged that his repressive political system would endure. As a result, Lourenço, as the MPLA’s candidate, likely benefitted from repression as much as dos Santos did, which is why he is widely expected to become the next president of Angola.
Besides the enduring specter of political repression, there is another reason to expect continuity in Angola’s governing system. An economic reason. Since the end of the civil war, Angola has undergone an economic boom. It is now Africa’s second-largest oil producer (after Nigeria), resulting in a massive windfall for the country, especially its elite class. Although living standards have risen for the general population, the improvement has been modest considering the massive wealth that has been funneled to the top. Dos Santos’ daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is Africa’s richest woman with a net worth of 3.5 billion dollars and stake in a wide array of businesses. In June of 2016, the elder dos Santos appointed his daughter as the head of Sonangol, Angola’s state-run oil company, giving her control of the country’s source of wealth. Thus the elder dos Santos, despite giving up the presidency, is still essentially in control of Angola’s economy. Add that to the fact that he’ll still be the chairman of the MPLA, and he is set to remain the most powerful man in Angola for years to come.
Considering Angola’s economic and political situation, the country’s decision makers have both the incentive and the means to maintain the status quo. If Lourenço is declared the winner, then, change will likely be minimal. As long as Lourenço keeps the money flowing towards the top, he will likely be able to remain popular among the ruling class. Whether such a status quo will remain sustainable, however, is questionable. As a result of falling oil prices, the Angolan economy has stalled. According to the Financial Times, Sonangol made profits of 3.1 billion dollars in 2013, but that fell to 400 million dollars in 2016. Inflation reached over 40%, eroding living standards. The majority of the population, having gained little from the country’s oil wealth, already lives in poverty. A third lives on under 2 dollars per day. The economic crisis will only worsen the situation.
Understandably, people are growing impatient. While the MPLA is expected to win, it is also expected to lose millions of voters as the population airs its frustration with rampant corruption. A poll indicated that 91% of respondents believe the MPLA to be primarily self-interested, and it showed support for the MPLA crumbling. In a repressive political system like Angola’s, in which a victory for the ruling party is nearly inevitable, this is the clearest sign as any that the MPLA has grown unpopular. Perhaps in the past, the MPLA was able to enrich itself while marginally improving living standards enough to maintain popularity. In the midst of an economic crisis, however, such an option is no longer on the table.
That brings us back to question posed at the beginning of this article. Given that dos Santos is retiring but his political system isn’t, how much change will occur in the event of a likely Lourenço victory? The most likely answer is, in the short-run, not much. But in the long-run, Lourenço will probably be forced to make difficult choices about Angola’s future, and, with a less personal stake in Angola’s economy, he will likely make those choices differently than dos Santos would have. So a Lourenço presidency wouldn’t make much of a difference tomorrow, but it probably will in the years to come.