On the morning of August 23rd, I voted for the first time in my life.
It was an anti-climactic affair; none of the clichéd long winding lines stretching into the African bush, full of people who had walked for miles under a scorching sun; I had simply gotten into my car, driven 3-5 minutes under a drab, cloudy cacimbo morning to a nearby private school and cast my vote. After an eleven-year wait to vote in my own country, I was in and out of the polling station in less than 3 minutes.
I left Angola as a young child and was raised in the United States, where I lived for the better part of 20 years. My education – primary school through college – was steeped in the virtues of democracy and rule of law. As a teenager I was very much involved in the country’s democratic process, participating in student government, leadership programs in the US Capitol, and volunteering for John Kerry’s campaign in Northern Virginia. The rather comic twist, however, was that I couldn’t vote because I’m not an American citizen.
Angola has less frequent elections than the US. As a war-ravaged, single-party Marxist-Leninist state until 1992, our first multi-party elections were only held that year. UNITA, one of the warring parties, and the MPLA never contested the second round of the intensely contested presidential election and the country descended into a final, 10 year war that lasted until the death of Jonas Savimbi in battle on February 2002. It marked the first time Angola began to experience a definitive peace since before its independence. It also marked a return of regular elections.
In 2008 Angola held its first ever elections since the end of the war; I was unable to vote because of school commitments, and the Angolan government refuses to grant Angolans living abroad the right to vote. MPLA, the ruling party, won by these legislative landslide with 82% of the vote. Between 2008 and 2010, the MPLA became drunk with power and wealth. Oil was hovering around $100 a barrel and we were producing over a million barrels per day.
People in the party and those connected to them became richer than they ever thought possible. Institutional Corruption flourished. Not content with its absolute control of the government, in 2010 MPLA changed the constitution (the opposition boycotted the vote) and abolished direct presidential elections. From then on, the first person in the list of candidates of the winning political party automatically becomes president; the second person on that list becomes vice-president.
By the time the 2012 elections came around, in which I again couldn’t vote because of work commitments in the US, many Angolans had grown disillusioned with the MPLA, the rampant corruption and the inability of the government to deliver on their promises of redistribution of wealth, job creation and better access to basic goods. Nonetheless, MPLA won with 72% of the vote, such was their control on the press, the public coffers, and civil society.
In 2013 I drank the proverbial Kool Aid and moved back to Angola, thinking that, despite ample evidence to the contrary, the country was poised for sustainable growth.
I was wrong.
People here like to joke that the country’s true opposition party is the price of oil. In 2015 the oil prices collapsed, and so did Angola’s completely oil-dependent economy. The MPLA’s gross mismanagement was exposed for all to see: corruption scandals flourished on a weekly basis, banks failed under the weight of bad loans to the party’s nomenclature, hospitals had no syringes, gloves, or medicine, numerous state companies stopped paying salaries infrastructure development ground to a halt. The hundreds of kilometers of roads built in the preceding decade began to crumble, in yet another example of government mismanagement and misuse of public funds. Over the next two years, Angolans began to realize that our economic development wasn’t such a miracle after all. It was simply a matter of high oil prices.
For the MPLA, the 2017 elections couldn’t possibly have come at a worse time. For many of us future voters, here was an opportunity to finally demonstrate to the ruling regime that we were fed up with their mismanagement, their corruption, their inability to diversify our economy, their incapacity to truly respect democracy, the rule of law, and individual freedoms. These elections, and the run up to them, finally offered us an outlet to vent, to let it all out. But we wanted to do it right and make it count. We knew we had to combat electoral fraud, a fundamentally and unapologetically biased press, controlled by the ruling party, and an Electoral Commission that was simply an extension of the same party, with only less than half of it made up of members from other parties.
Several of my friends and family members had grown disillusioned with Angola’s election process, saying (and rightly so) that the playing field was inherently unfair, unbalanced and deeply favored the ruling party. Many more, however, were raring to vote. It felt that the MPLA would finally get a proper challenge. Yes, they were expected to win – it would be hard for them, as all-powerful incumbents, not to do so – but the opposition was empowered. Their rallies attracted thousands of people throughout the country, but perhaps the biggest crowds appeared right here in Luanda.
Unlike the ruling party, which orders public servants to attend, trucks people in like cattle from surrounding villages and closes schools, state businesses and provincial governments to make sure their rallies are well attended, opposition parties rely on their supporter’s free will.
Although elections in Angola are still lacking in many aspects seen in more advanced African democracies, such as vigorous debate (João Lourenço, number one on MPLA’s list, refused to participate in one) and ample discussion on the merits and shortcomings of each party’s government manifesto, campaigns here are reduce to littering the street’s with their political flags, 5 minutes of state-mandated airtime on television and 10 minutes on the radio. Credit however must be given to the two main opposition parties – UNITA and CASA-CE – for doing their best in conveying their hopes for Angola in that short amount of time.
In the run-up to the elections, the ruling party, short on cash and resources but knowing for certain that their popularity had decreased substantially since the last polls, began a relentless, all-encompassing media campaign to hammer home their message. Out of 2,120 minutes monitored, 1,529 minutes were dedicated to one of the political parties. Of those, 1,215 were dedicated to the MPLA. During the last few days of the campaign, all pretense was tossed aside and our only two television stations aired documentaries about the Angolan civil war, tacitly implying that a vote against the MPLA was a vote in confusão.
Despite the negative rhetoric, people turned out to vote all throughout Angola. Abstention rates, so high in 2012 (37%) due in part to the purposeful incompetence of the Electoral Comission, dropped substantially this year. Most polling stations in downtown Luanda had little to no lines, there were delegates present from most competing parties, and the entire process seemed organized.
I had my mind set on who I was going to vote for several days before I drove to my station, presented my voting card and was pointed towards my voting booth. Voting for a party other than the MPLA felt liberating. A small, insignificant act of rebellion, alone in a voting booth made up of cardboard boxes, heart pounding, hand steady, trying to do something about this postponed dream of a country. I picked my party, folded the paper, and put it in the ballot box; someone gently grabbed my hand and dabbed my finger in the indelible paint. Vote cast, I went home. It was over. For me and millions of other Angolans throughout the day.
As I type this, there are still no official, definitive results as to who won the elections. Thinking that the vote tallying would start that night, my girlfriend and I hosted a little get-together at our house so that we could watch the incoming results with our friends. CASA-CE even set up a website where the results were updated in real-time, as soon as their delegates in each voting station sent official numbers to party headquarters.
The website lasted about an hour until it succumbed to traffic overload; it was later taken off air. The next day, an MPLA spokesperson claimed, on national radio and television, that his party had obtained a qualified majority. A few hours later, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) mirrored his statement. The opposition cried foul, because according to our Electoral Law, the Commission can only release provisional results after receiving them from each Provincial Electoral Commission.
Astoundingly, not a single province had sent their results to the NEC in Luanda. No-one knew where the numbers came from. The next day, seven members of the Electoral Commission called a public press conference and distanced themselves from the NEC’s provisional results, saying that contrary to the law they did not have access to any official vote tallies, had not received a single result from the provinces, and had no idea where the NEC had gotten its numbers. Once again, Angola’s institutions betrayed the people they were meant to serve.
Today, seven days after the vote, we still don’t have official results accepted by all parties.