LUANDA (Reuters) - Angolans voted in a parliamentary election on Wednesday expected to usher in the ruling party’s defence minister as the first new leader of Africa’s second-biggest oil producer for 38 years.
Joao Lourenco, who has pledged to boost growth and fight corruption, would inherit an economy mired in recession as gaping inequality, soaring inflation and high unemployment squeeze poor Angolans who have benefited little from a decades-long oil boom.
The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which has ruled Angola since independence from Portugal in 1975, is expected to remain in power but with a reduced majority. Its support has waned due to widespread political cronyism, though many Angolans remain loyal to the party that emerged victorious from 27 years of civil war in 2002.
“I’ve been following the party (MPLA) all my life. I grew up with it,” 33-year-old bakery owner Telma Francisco told Reuters outside a polling station in the capital.
“The other parties don’t have the capacity to govern.”
Voters like Francisco waited in orderly queues on a cloudy morning in the capital Luanda as police and military manned street corners.
Lourenco, a quiet man more used to army barracks and the closed doors of party politics than the public spotlight, voted at the Luanda state university at 9 a.m. (0800 GMT), only stopping to praise a smooth electoral process.
Questions have been raised as to how much power Lourenco, 63, will have if he wins, given veteran leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos, 74, will continue as head of the MPLA and have potentially a sweeping say over decision-making.
His daughter, Isabel, heads national oil producer Sonangol and his son José Filomeno is in charge of the $5 billion state investment fund. A recent law gives immunity to dos Santos.
“Even if he wanted to, Lourenco may find it difficult to free himself from the control of dos Santos,” said Julia Westbury, Africa analyst at West Sands Advisory.
“Large-scale political change is unlikely, and the long awaited democratic reforms needed to turn Angola’s struggling economy around are unlikely to materialise.”
Lourenco on Tuesday dismissed suggestions he would be a puppet president, saying he would focus on leading an “economic miracle”, possibly with the help of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and prosecute corrupt politicians.
Angola’s economy is highly vulnerable to the price of oil. The IMF projects relatively minimal growth for the next two years and a continuing current account deficit.
Dos Santos, Africa’s longest-ruling president behind Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, will step down after guiding the OPEC-member from Marxism to capitalism while embracing Chinese oil-for-infrastructure investment.
The MPLA’s main opponent will be its former civil war foe, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), while young voters have been lured by CASA-CE, which was formed in 2012 on a promise to disrupt 50 years of two-party politics.
“Today is a day of festivities, happiness, peace and of responsibility and I trust in the Angolan people that we have the conditions to bring change,” CASA-CE presidential candidate Abel Chivukuvuku said prior to casting his vote.
More than two-thirds of Angolans are below 25 so many people will be voting for the first time.
“We’re voting for change,” said 19-year old Joao Costa, who like most people who oppose the authoritative MPLA declined to say who he voted for.
Others were sticking by the ruling party.
“The opposition is a joke,” said out-of-work decorator Francisco, 32, declining to give his surname. “The MPLA is the only party that can change things and with a new candidate for president I think he can do a better job”
An unofficial result is expected by Friday. But there may be no formal announcement for two weeks as ballot boxes wend their way along pot-holed roads and dirt tracks in a country of 28 million spread across an area twice the size of France.
There are concerns about how fair the vote will be after the government cracked down on recently planned public demonstrations. UNITA has said it will lead protests if it believes the MPLA has manipulated results.
Angola has been largely peaceful since the end of a Cold War-era conflict between the MPLA, backed by the Soviet Union, and UNITA, supported by the United States and South Africa.
Writing by Joe Brock, Editing by Angus MacSwan