Angola’s Lourenço returns but youths shake ruling party chokehold

More than 60 percent of Angolans are under 24 and their frustration helped the opposition come close to unseating the ruling MPLA.

Military units take part in a parade as Angola's President Joao Lourenco is sworn in for a second five-year term
Military units take part in a parade as Angola's President Joao Lourenco is sworn in for a second five-year term in Luanda, Angola, September 15, 2022 [Lee Bogota/Reuters]

Angolan President Joao Lourenço was sworn in on Thursday for a second term in office, in front of approximately 15,000 selected guests in the historic palm tree-lined square in the capital city Luanda.

At first glance, the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA)’s win in the August 22 vote might be viewed as another routine victory for the party, which has been in power since independence from Portugal in 1975.

A closer look however reveals that the party is in crisis, posting its worst result since multi-party politics were introduced in 1992.

In the last four consecutive elections, the MPLA has become increasingly unpopular, losing about an additional 10 percent of the available votes every cycle. This was despite a change of guard from Jose Eduardo dos Santos who ruled for almost 40 years to Lourenço who succeeded him in 2017.

In this election, MPLA received just over 51 percent of the vote, securing a second five-year term for Lourenco while its archrival, main opposition party UNITA, gained approximately 44 percent.

In 2008, the MPLA won 81 percent of the votes. In 2012 and 2017, that decreased to 74 percent and 61 percent respectively. Four years on, it won by only 61 percent.

In addition, the party lost to UNITA in the capital Luanda, historically an MPLA stronghold. The ruling party also lost its two-thirds majority in parliament, forcing it to cooperate with opposition legislators for the first time.

“The MPLA will no longer be able to pass legislation uncontested, meaning that its control over state institutions will weaken,” Marisa Lourenço (no relation to the president), a Johannesburg-based political analyst told Al Jazeera.

The political shift reflects the wider socioeconomic transformation happening in Angola where the youth, representing the majority of the voting population, has become extremely vocal in opposing the status quo.

Deep divisions

After independence, the MPLA and UNITA, which had begun as rebel movements fighting for the country’s liberation, turned on each other. After 27 years of civil war, a truce was reached in 2002.

But the country’s political structure was deeply affected by the war and its dark legacy lingers on as the top political parties bicker over Angola’s future.

Under dos Santos who ruled for nearly 40 years with an iron fist, Angola moved from socialism to crony capitalism as the MPLA-linked elite amassed control over its natural resources, financial institutions and mass media.

As skyscrapers appeared on Luanda’s coastline to showcase Angola’s post-war boom driven by enormous oil and diamond exports, slums surrounding the city grew exponentially, creating one of the world’s most unequal societies.

Even today, majority of the population lives below the poverty line even though the country is now Africa’s largest oil producer.

In 2017, dos Santos stepped down following calls for reform, handpicking his Defence Minister Lourenço as his successor.

The new president pledged to turn a new page in the country’s history and started with an ambitious crackdown on corruption that affected his benefactor’s family including Isabel dos Santos, once Africa’s richest woman.

However, citizens and civil society say that promise remains unfulfilled and that his campaign to boost transparency is yet to prompt wider structural reforms that could lead to a more free and equal Angola.

His presidency has struggled to cope with the economic crisis triggered by the global drop in oil prices. The oil-dependent economy was hit hard and the living conditions of people, particularly the youth, worsened.

Force for change

More than 60 percent of Angola’s population are under 24.

In recent years, they have been complaining that the post-war boom had benefitted only the elite and has not translated into wider socioeconomic transformation. And the numbers back up their assertions.

The official unemployment rate is approximately 30 percent, but among the youth, that figure doubles. Indeed, more than half of Angolans under the age of 25 are unemployed, according to its national statistics institute.

In his inauguration speech, Lourenço offered an olive branch to the country’s disenfranchised and largely unemployed youth.

“We will work on policies and good practices … to create more jobs for Angolans, but especially for young people,” he said.

But Luanda-based political analyst Claudio Silva said the youth having witnessed how MPLA has “wasted” the country’s resources, remain far from impressed.

“They have witnessed how billions of dollars were thrown away in multiple monthly corruption scandals”, Silva told Al Jazeera. “Our generation has seen political leaders become fabulously wealthy.”

Since the new generation was born after the civil war and many voted for the first time in this election, they are seemingly less interested in MPLA’s patriotic rhetoric which some say has no effect on current realities affecting their everyday lives.

“We young people can’t do it any more,” Cristovao Semedo in Luanda said. “We don’t work. We don’t have anything. We can’t eat. It’s more suffering than anything else”.

Feeling distanced from the ruling party, the youth overwhelmingly threw its support behind UNITA which went after young urban voters by capitalising on their frustration about the widespread corruption, inflation, rising public debt and unemployment.

Âurea Mouzinho of Global Alliance for Tax Justice says the overwhelming sentiment in the election campaign was that young people would vote for change, “something that became synonymous with voting in UNITA”.

With the youth support, UNITA was able to hit 44 percent of the vote this time, its highest voter share in history and twice what it garnered in the 2017 polls.

Following the calls from opposition candidate Costa Junior to protect their vote, young voters stayed in polling stations to make sure their vote had been counted as per the law.

“In an unprecedented way, they voted en masse and organised civic movements to monitor the results in polling stations”, Mouzinho said.

One of those movements was the youth-led civil society group Movimento Cívico Mudei. Apart from drawing attention to transparency issues in Angola’s electoral system, it has been encouraging more active youth participation in the political process.

Its members also played a vital role in challenging MPLA’s amassing more state power, said political analyst Lourenço.

“Luaty Beirao, a prominent activist, has been very vocal about the darker side of the MPLA regime,” she told Al Jazeera. “He has also been imprisoned before under the dos Santos administration in which he went on a hunger strike.”

Ahead of the elections, the group launched Projecto Jiku, a parallel vote count which showed a slim UNITA lead against MPLA, in contrast to the official results.

“The project showed that there were serious concerns about the partiality of the electoral commission”, Lourenço said.

And experts says the youth in general are on the crisp of something big.

“They have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with and can, if not, will determine the outcome of future elections”, Mouzinho said.

Source: Al Jazeera