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Luanda, Angola - Angolans voted on Friday in a one-sided election expected to prolong President Jose Eduardo dos Santos' nearly 33 years in power, but many citizens said they wanted to see a more equal share-out of wealth in Africa's No. 2 oil producer.
Calls for better power, water, health and education services and demands for greater social equity were an insistent theme as voters cast their ballots in the seaside capital Luanda and across the southern African nation.
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 the mutilated limbs of landmine victims.
“To destroy is easy, but to construct is more difficult,” said Graca, a Luanda grandmother, who gave only her first name as she went to vote carrying her baby granddaughter in one arm and her voter's card in the other.
“I hope that there can be peace and that we learn to divide what we have, the riches we have.”
Dos Santos' ruling MPLA is expected to win comfortably at the expense of smaller and weaker opposition parties, giving the silver-haired president a further five years in office on top of the 33 years he has already been in power.
Dos Santos, who turned 70 this week, is Africa's second longest serving leader after Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
Opponents and civil society critics say he has created a “one-person state” marked by rampant corruption and conspicuous enrichment of a small elite, including his own family.
But he faces a groundswell of discontent among ordinary Angolans 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.
Around 9.7 million Angolans were 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.
Before the vote, Elias Isaac, Angola country director for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), a pro-democracy NGO, told Reuters the one-sided election would not pass muster as a credible democratic exercise.
“We can't really talk of transparent, fair and just elections,” Isaac said.
Polling stations were numerous in the capital, and by late afternoon, the number of voters had slowed to a trickle.
Former Cape Verdean president Pedro Pires, leading a delegation of African Union election observers, told Reuters voting appeared to have gone ahead without major problems, although some polling stations opened late.
“Things are going normally ... it might not be as good as Europe but the conditions are there,” he said.
National elections commission chief Andre da Silva Neto said initial results were likely to be announced on Saturday.
The MPLA's monolithic hold on the state and its control of most local media gave it clear campaign advantages over the former rebel group UNITA and seven other smaller coalitions and parties fielding candidates. Opposition leaders complained of irregularities in the vote preparations.
But after voting at a heavily guarded school near the presidential palace in Luanda, Dos Santos told reporters: “Democracy is the power of the people and today the people have the power in their hands.”
He left in one of a fleet of black Mercedes cars.
In the gritty working class suburb of Cazenga, unemployed pipeline worker Sebastiao Monteiro Neves, 25, said it was hard to find a job unless you had links to the ruling MPLA.
“The people want to vote for change, let's hope that's what happens,” he said.
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 represents peace and prosperity.
But the MPLA campaign slogan, “Make Angola grow more and distribute better”, reflected the ruling party's awareness that it needs to address the popular clamour for more social equity.
“I hope the president will carry out his promises to work better and distribute things more,” said retired civil servant Josefa Van Dunem da Silva Ferreira.
There has been a rush of infrastructure investment - roads, housing estates, bridges, hospitals, railway stations and airports - mostly built by Chinese and Portuguese companies.
“This country had a lot of war, you have to give it time,” said Guillermina Pereira, another Luanda resident, as she voted.
Observers from the Southern African Development Community, the African Union and the Community of Portuguese-Speaking States, of which Angola is a member, are witnessing the vote.
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.
An oil boom fuelled rapid growth averaging 15 percent a year between 2002 and 2008 and prospects for national economic growth remain buoyant, but distribution of this wealth among Angola's 18 million people has been very unequal. Thrusting new buildings and construction cranes punctuate the bayside skyline of Luanda, but sprawling poor slums known as “musseques” fringe the overcrowded city.
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 projects opened by the MPLA during campaigning.
Just a few minutes from the renovated, palm-lined seafront is the dusty Sambizanga “musseque” where Dos Santos was born.
At one corner stands a water point that locals say has not yielded running water for three or four years
“Our party in power needs to do more and talk less,” said Maria Dos Santos Campos, gesturing to the dry water stand and comparing it with the millions spent on the seafront promenade. - Reuters