Luanda - Angolans voted on Friday in a one-sided election expected to keep President Jose Eduardo dos Santos at the helm of Africa's No 2 oil producer, but the long-serving leader faces swelling popular pressure to share the nation's riches more evenly.
In the seaside capital Luanda, where gleaming new office and apartment blocks contrast with sprawling, grimy slums, and in cities and towns across the southern African state, polling stations opened in schools and other public buildings.
Dos Santos' ruling MPLA is expected to win comfortably at the expense of smaller and weaker opposition parties, extending the president's nearly 33 years in power which make him Africa's second longest serving leader after Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
But many ordinary Angolans are clearly deeply unhappy about the unequal distribution of their country's oil wealth and this may be reflected in the size of the MPLA victory or the voter turnout.
Luanda was calm as polling stations opened, and at the Puniv Central high school, retired civil servant Josefa Van Dunem da Silva Ferreira was among the first to vote. “We're all Angolans linked to the same fate,” she said.
“I hope the president will carry out his promises to work better and distribute things more,” she told Reuters at the station, as early voters turned out under grey skies to deposit their ballots in transparent plastic urns.
Around 9.7 million Angolans are registered to vote at more than 10,000 polling stations. The election will appoint 220 lawmakers, and the leader of the winning party automatically becomes president for a five-year term.
It is only the third national election since Angola won independence from Portugal in 1975, and the second since the end a decade ago of a 27-year civil war whose scars can still be seen in damaged buildings and amputee land mine victims.
The MPLA's monolithic hold on the state and its control of most local media gave it clear advantages in a lop-sided campaign over the former rebel group UNITA and seven other smaller coalitions and parties fielding candidates.
The month-long campaign was generally peaceful, marred only by an incident on Thursday in which police detained a dozen members of the CASA-CE opposition party when they tried to enter the national elections commission to demand credentials to observe the vote.
The MPLA, trying to repeat its crushing 2008 election win over UNITA with 82 percent of the vote, has sought to ram home the message that Dos Santos, who turned 70 this week, represents the best guarantee of peace and prosperity in Angola.
“We're going to continue the work we started,” the silver-haired president told 20,000 cheering supporters on Wednesday in a closing campaign rally in Luanda.
His opponents have denounced alleged electoral irregularities and attacked what they say is rampant corruption in the MPLA leadership at the expense of Angola's poor.
Civil society activists say the election, hailed as a “Feast of Democracy” by the state media, will not pass muster as a credible democratic exercise.
“We can't really talk of transparent, fair and just elections,” said Elias Isaac, Angola country director for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), a pro-democracy NGO.
Observers from the Southern African Development Community, the African Union and the Community of Portuguese-Speaking States, of which Angola is a member, will witness the elections.
But there are no formal observer missions from the European Union or the United States, both major importers of Angola's oil along with China. Some senior diplomats from Western embassies said they had not received credentials to observe the voting.
The MPLA's dominance reflects Dos Santos' more than three decades in power during which the reserved Soviet-trained oil engineer, with military help from Cuba and the Soviet Union, survived Cold War offensives by South African apartheid forces and defeated first the FNLA and then UNITA in the civil war.
But after 10 years of peace, the ruling party faces growing popular discontent over persistent poverty and inequality in a country rich in oil, diamonds and land.
“Angolans are suffering because they are poor in a rich country,” UNITA leader Isaias Samakuva told a campaign rally.
In apparent recognition of this, the MPLA's election slogan pledges to “to make Angola grow more and to distribute better”.
An oil boom fuelled rapid growth averaging 15 percent a year between 2002 and 2008 and economic prospects remain buoyant, but distribution of this wealth among Angola's 18 million people has been unequal.
On his 70th birthday on Tuesday, Dos Santos inaugurated a $360 million facelift for Luanda's waterfront promenade amid a crowd of dignitaries, the latest of a string of big-ticket infrastructure projects opened by the MPLA during campaigning.
Just a few minutes from the renovated, palm-lined seafront is the dusty, crowded slum of Sambizanga where Dos Santos was born, according to his official MPLA biography.
At one corner stands a water point, enclosed in a metal grille, which local residents say has not yielded running water for three or four years. “We don't need much to fix this,” said Maria Dos Santos Campos, gesturing to the dry water stand and comparing it with the millions spent on the seafront promenade.
“Angola is a rich country. I don't believe the neighbourhood should be the way it is ... our party in power needs to do more and talk less,” she said.
Critics like OSISA's Isaac say Dos Santos runs Angola like a “one-person state”, surrounded by family members and a political and military elite he says use public funds to further their own private business interests. “It's a group of bloodsuckers feeding from a vein,” he said.
Dos Santos supporters blame those around the president. “The man is not God ... a country cannot be built in a day. The intention is good,” said a civil servant who gave his name only as Pedro, wearing the MPLA's red, black and yellow colours. - Reuters