JOHANNESBURG // All the superficial trappings of a democratic vote will be in place when the poverty-stricken people of oil-rich Angola go to the polls tomorrow: multiple opposition parties, vigorous campaigns and international observers. But appearance and reality are two very different things in Angola, where economic statistics, including one of the highest per-capita incomes in Africa and an economy growing at 23 per cent last year, mask glaring contrasts in a nation that confines vast wealth to a tiny elite - yacht marinas and expensive restaurants sit side-by-side with shanty towns. There is a similar divergence between form and truth in politics too, according to analysts, who also point out the contrast with southern Africa's most controversial recent election in Zimbabwe.
In that country, after doubts were raised about the first-round result and Robert Mugabe's supporters launched a campaign of violence to ensure his second-round victory, the West lined up in united condemnation, with even some African countries joining in the criticism. While violence in Angola is isolated and sporadic, analysts describe a climate of fear among the people and no one expects Eduardo dos Santos' ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) to record anything other than a crushing victory. The anticipation is that it will then be followed by business as usual, for one simple reason: oil.
Earlier this year, Angola overtook Nigeria as sub-Saharan Africa's biggest producer of the black gold, and its vast reserves are the object of intense competition between Beijing and the West. Almost one-third of its production goes to China, and more than one-quarter to the United States - while Angolans themselves queue for petrol because of a shortage of refining capacity in the country itself. "Of course it could be said that it's in the international community's interests to give these elections a clean bill of health," said Richard Hewitt, a British member of the European parliament who is in Angola as part of an observer mission. "I would agree there's less scrutiny of what's going on [than in Zimbabwe]. It appears to be a massively one-sided election, not because the MPLA are trying to rig it, there's no real suggestion of that, but there's only one show in town. "They have apparently got all the money and all the media, and there appear to be serious questions about appointments to the election commission, which is supposed to be independent. "We are not talking about squads of people going through the countryside murdering people, it's more about a party that's got a complete stranglehold on the country and appears to be prepared to have a relatively clean election because they have every confidence they will win." Effectively, the poll is the first test of Mr dos Santos's popularity since he took power in 1975, when Portugal pulled out. He is now one of the world's longest-ruling leaders. Announcing the election, he declared that it would be "democratic, free and transparent". "In this competition there are no enemies, there are political opponents only, with different political programmes that will seek to attract the highest number of votes to conquer the power and exert it with legitimacy," he said. His officials have since rejected criticism by the New York-based Human Rights Watch as "offensive" interference in Angola's internal affairs, born of "hatred towards the Angolan people". The last time Angola tried to hold a vote was 16 years ago, in 1992, when the opposition National Unity for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) party rejected the first round results, the second round was cancelled, and the country's long-running civil war restarted, ending only with the death in battle of UNITA's leader Jonas Savimbi in Feb 2002. After a major disarmament programme, nobody expects a repetition this time around, but that has not stopped MPLA politicians seeking to create a climate of fear, said Sizaltina Cutaia, elections programme officer for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa in Luanda. "The message from UNITA and others is very pacific," she said. "Some of the things said by government officials has been causing some of the violence. It's just to intimidate people. "There are a lot of things that influence people to vote, especially in a country that experienced war after the elections in 1992. It's very difficult for people to think of elections as something that can bring about change, something that we should be having. People are still scared, people are stocking up food because they don't know what's going to happen." Violence against the opposition, she said, had been sporadic - the Human Rights Watch report last month reached similar conclusions - but the authorities do not need to resort to widespread atrocities, she explained. "We have a very biased media, and the election commission is very politicised. It's like they are instruments or puppets." Seven out of its 10 members are MPLA figures, she pointed out. Nonetheless she expects little in the way of international criticism. "Oil determines a lot in the way the international community looks at our country. The Angolan people is very much aware of that. We don't think they are going to say anything that will upset the Angolan government or the MPLA." With the opposition divided and limited to a few minutes on television and radio each day, it is difficult to tell who Angolans truly back, particularly as the country's last opinion poll was several years ago. "There's still no freedom for people to really talk about who they are supporting," said Ms Cutaia. "People are using the MPLA as security, they tell you they wear the T-shirt and go to the rallies so they are not connected to the opposition and they don't become a target, especially in the rural areas. "It's difficult to say it's free and fair. The MPLA is not ready to lose. It looks like they went to the same school with Mugabe, that's what we say here." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org