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Free media key to progress in Angola

By Simão Chatepa and Chigwe Phiri, Trócaire Governance & Human Rights Programme Officers in Angola, 18 September 2012

Ten years on from the brutal civil war which claimed the lives of three million people, Angola went to the polls recently for just the third election since the adoption of a multiparty system in 1991. The ballot process was not without controversy, however.

The first controversy was over the independence of the electoral commission, which was chaired by a loyal supporter of the governing MPLA party. With the opposition focused on challenging this decision, the government took the opportunity to tamper with other key issues, including reducing the funds all parties have for election expenses in the knowledge that the MPLA has access to state funds through Government departments and state owned companies.

The Government also caused controversy by restricting who can take part in the election. Each of the 26 declared parties had to secure 15,000 nominating signatures from citizens, yet only nine of the 26 parties managed to overcome this hurdle. In one case a party that submitted 18,000 nominations was ruled ineligible after 7,000 nominations were disqualified when checked against a computer register which is full of errors. Some of the most vocal and critical opposition parties were eliminated at this stage.

Perhaps the most serious controversy was related to the continued manipulation of the media. On state radio and television opposition parties get minimal electoral coverage, while the Government party receives gushing praise. Independent press is continually harassed.

Given all of this, it was not a surprise when the ruling MPLA, in power since independence in 1975, retained its landslide majority, winning 73 per cent of the vote. Their nearest rivals, UNITA, claimed 18 per cent. A constitutional change, initiated to benefit 70-year-old President Eduardo dos Santos, Africa’s second longest-serving ruler, means that the party with the majority of parliamentary seats automatically controls the presidency. As a result, the new parliament will elect a President and Vice President who will lead a government for the next five years.

However, the overwhelming MPLA victory was overshadowed by high voter apathy, with a turnout of just 57 per cent. Less than half of registered voters in the capital city turned out. Many polling stations in the capital city were empty.

Although MPLA won with a landslide, their share of the vote was 10 per cent down on 2008. Furthermore, in Luanda city the MPLA got only 59 per cent of the vote, a reduction of nearly 31% from its 2008 victory.

Two issues could go some way towards explaining the low turn-out rate.

Firstly, just 24 hours prior to polling, UNITA threatened to withdraw from the election, citing the lack of a credible voters’ roll and non-accreditation of its electoral monitors. In the late hours of the 30th August, UNITA requested a meeting with President dos Santos in order to discuss these issues. The meeting did not take place and so many voters were unsure whether UNITA were actually participating in the contest.

Secondly, a significant number of voters were unable to cast their ballot due to late opening and in some cases no opening of the polling stations, lack of ballot papers, omissions in the voters’ register and relocation of polling stations to very distant places. Some people were relocated to voting stations some 50 – 500 km away from where they live.

While international observers described the elections as being free, fair and transparent, three opposition parties (UNITA, CASA-CE and PRS) have challenged the results of the elections alleging that they were fraudulent and unfair. The three parties submitted their protest action to CNE demanding annulment of the results. However, as expected, on September 13th CNE responded dismissing all the allegations.

As human rights activists working in Angola, we believe the presence of a nascent independent media (including social media), as well as awareness of events of the Arab spring, have helped city dwellers in the capital Luanda to make more informed and critical voting decisions.

Provinces outside the capital, which did not have access to independent non-partisan media, lacked this access to alternative views. With the drop in support for the MPLA in Luanda the Angola Government is likely to continue to refuse to issue broadcasting licenses to independent non-partisan media outside Luanda city and control the flow of information.

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