Angolans get early start at polls

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REUTERS

A ballot paper is seen ahead of the national elections in the capital Luanda.

Luanda, Angola - Young and old, many voters showed up early Friday at polling stations for Angola's second general election in 20 years, with the ruling party expected to easily hang onto power despite accusations it is corrupt and has mismanaged Angola's oil and diamond riches.

Voters banged at the gate to one polling station at a school which remained closed 90 minutes after voting was to start. Electoral official Delfina Manuel explained that there was no electricity and it had been too dark in the classrooms to open earlier. They also only had one person distributing electoral materials.

Luis da Silva, a 28-year-old plumber, said the delay showed no respect for some of the elderly people who have been waiting since 5 a.m. to cast ballots.

After an initial rush, voting slowed, though election officials said they expected crowds later in the day. But some Angolans, exasperated by corruption among politicians, said they would stay away.

Office cleaner Amalia Masungo said she is not voting because “they (politicians) are all bad men and I don't think my vote will make any difference.”

Victory for the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola , or MPLA, would give the country's ruler for 33 years, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, another five-year term.

Some 9.7 million voters are registered to elect 220 legislators from nine parties and coalitions. Last year, the government changed the constitution so that the No. 1 candidate of the winning party becomes president, instead of there being a direct election for president, which dos Santos has never faced. Polls close at 6 p.m. (1700 GMT) and results were expected Monday.

New onto the scene is the Broad Convergence for Angola's Salvation, a coalition created in April which unites former key opposition figure Abel Chivukuvuku and Andre Gaspar Mendes de Carvalho, a former general in dos Santos' army and the son of one of Angola's most famous nationalists. Chivukuvuku had belonged to UNITA, the biggest opposition party, which won 10 percent of votes and 16 seats in the 2008 election.

Calling itself “the leader of change,” the new coalition is expected to come in third place with its promises to raise the minimum wage from less than $100 to $500 and to set up an agency to fight corruption.

“Every vote will make a difference. We have to believe in the electoral process,” Braulio Silva, a 26-year-old who works for a logistics company, said as he waited in a line of up to 150 people outside the school in the slum district of Prenda.

Dos Santos' party holds 191 national assembly seats after it won 2008 elections in a landslide. UNITA is expected to pick up a few more votes from people who complain about a lack of democracy and an unequal spread of wealth.

A 32-year-old IT engineer, Jose Tomas, expected that the MPLA would win in part because voters are used to the party.

“You see all those old mommas voting?” he said of a group of women wearing traditional cloth wraps. “The MPLA for them is like a cell phone: As long as it doesn't break or get stolen, they'll never change brand.”

The MPLA has presided over the resurgence of Luanda, a once-decrepit seaside town that has turned into a building construction site. Human rights officials complain that poor Angolans have been forced from their downtown homes to farflung suburbs with no electricity, water or transport, to make way for luxury high-rise apartment buildlings.

Both UNITA and the coalition have complained of the uneven playing field at the election and the possibilities for fraud. Opposition parties are particularly concerned that votes will not be counted until they reach the National Electoral Commission in Luanda. UNITA leader Isaias Samakuva said he has confirmed that soldiers in the Military Affairs Cabinet that reports directly to the president's office have been installed there as logistical supervisors. The same thing happened in 2008 when the military was involved in transportation, distribution and handling of ballots, ballots boxes and minutes for election results, according to Chatham House, the London-based independent policy institute.

Dos Santos' party also has a near-monopoly on the national media. It has emphasized the government's reconstruction of the country after the civil war, the president's role as an “architect of peace,” improved democracy, housing, educational, health and entrepreneurial projects and job creation.

Still, unemployment stands officially at 26 percent and is much higher among young people.

This southern African nation was a Cold War battlefield for 27 years, with dos Santos' MPLA backed by Cuban soldiers and a Soviet war chest, pitted against Jonas Savimbi's UNITA, which was backed by apartheid South Africa and the United States. Half a million people died in the war, more than 4 million - a third of the population - was displaced and much infrastructure was destroyed. Both parties had started as guerrilla movements to end Portuguese colonization.

Since the war ended soon after Savimbi's death in a 2002 clash with government troops, Angola has dominated the list of the world's fastest growing economies and is sub-Saharan Africa's second-largest oil producer, after Nigeria. Oil-backed credit lines from China - Angola is China's No. 1 oil supplier and its second biggest importer is the United States - have fueled a building boom of houses, hospitals, schools, roads and bridges. Average life expectancy went up from 45 in 2002 to 51 in 2011, and the average Angolan now has nine years of schooling compared to five in 2000.

But 87 percent of urban Angolans live in shanty towns, often with no access to clean water, according to UNICEF. More than a third of Angolans live below the poverty line. In 2011, Angola ranked 148 out of 187 countries on the U.N. Human Development Index and 168 out of 183 on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. - Sapa-AP


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