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Angola Is Bracing for Its Most Competitive Election Ever

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Angolans head to the polls Wednesday in what is expected to be the closest election since the country first allowed a multi-party vote in 1992. The key question is whether voters will once again pick the left-wing People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which has run the country for half a century, or back the center-right National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) under the charismatic Adalberto Costa Júnior.

MPLA is currently led by incumbent President João Lourenço and derives much of its support from its role in ending Angola’s 1975-2002 civil war against UNITA. The two anti-colonial guerilla movements were locked in a struggle following Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975. But high unemployment, corruption, and the repression of civil liberties has hit MPLA’s popularity, particularly among Angola’s disillusioned youth, for whom the memory of the civil war may not be as fresh.

“People don’t believe change can come from MPLA,” says Chloé Buire, a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in France who has spent many years studying Angola. “They are not going to accept business as usual.”

That desire for change has given Costa Júnior, who has pledged to tackle corruption and poverty, an opening among younger voters in particular. His UNITA party is leading the United Patriotic Front (FPU) opposition alliance and polls predict a tight vote.

Experts say that MPLA’s struggles with younger voters are similar to the issues that other erstwhile liberation parties are grappling with across the continent, including the ANC in South Africa, SWAPO in Namibia, and FRELIMO in Mozambique. “These parties see themselves with the God-given right to govern in perpetuity so they don’t really see a scenario where they lose,” says Alex Vines, director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House. “It’s all about having won the liberation struggle against the colonialists, even though it’s largely irrelevant to these large pools of young people.”

Angola’s 27-year civil war was a proxy conflict during the Cold War, with the U.S. and apartheid South Africa backing UNITA, and the Soviet Union and Cuba supporting MPLA. Around 1 million people died. Many Angolans who are fed up with the status quo are open to giving UNITA’s new leadership a chance, says Anne Pitcher, a professor of African studies at the University of Michigan.

Adalberto Costa Júnior, president of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) talks during the swearing in ceremony of the United Patriotic Front (FPU), a coalition to challenge the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in the upcoming elections, in Luanda on May 9, 2022.Julio Pacheco Ntela—AFP via Getty Images

There are deep concerns about whether the vote will be free and fair. Last year, MPLA used its super-majority in parliament to pass legislation that centralized the counting of votes—moves that critics say were designed to undermine the integrity and transparency of Wednesday’s election. “The elections are not stolen on the day of the elections. It’s way ahead of that,” Buire says. “The whole counting system is biased.”

Earlier this month, Amnesty International also issued a press release denouncing unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests, and a generalized squashing of dissent.

“Yearning for change”

After the war’s end in 2002, José Eduardo dos Santos continued to rule Angola until 2017—he took office in 1979—and his family earned a reputation for corruption and nepotism, particularly in recent years. Dos Santos in 2016 appointed his daughter, Isabel dos Santos, to run the country’s state oil company, Sonangol, and she later became Africa’s wealthiest woman. In January 2020, documents released as part of the “Luanda Leaks” detailed how she allegedly built her empire through benefiting from lucrative deals during her father’s presidency and channeled state funds to shell companies.

Read More: Africa’s Richest Woman Is Being Accused of Stealing Money from a Country Suffering from an Economic Crisis. Here’s What to Know

When José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down five years ago, he chose Lourenço to succeed him. In a surprise to some, Lourenço put substantial effort into holding the dos Santos family to account. But Lourenço also faced criticism for tackling corruption in a selective manner. “A new cast of characters has continued to engage in corruption and benefit from rent seeking,” Pitcher says. “It’s very much about creating a coalition of people who are loyal to Lourenço.”

In recent years, the pandemic and a dip in oil prices posed new challenges to Angola’s oil-dependent economy. “Angola’s fortunes rise and fall with the price of oil,” Pitcher says. “The discovery of oil, combined with the war, has really undercut the diversity of the economy.” The ruling party has repeatedly promised economic diversification but oil still accounts for about one-quarter of the country’s GDP.

Still, many Angolans continue to back MPLA. And the repatriation of José Eduardo dos Santos’s remains on Saturday—he died last month in Spain—could give the party a chance to talk up its liberation credentials.

But the news seems unlikely to sway youth wanting a new government. “Young people, especially in the urban areas, are yearning for change. So the attraction of UNITA not being the MPLA is significant,” says Chatham House’s Vines.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com