August 22, 2017 / 12:21 PM / a month ago

On eve of vote, Angola's Lourenco denies he'd be puppet president

Joao Lourenco, presidential candidate for the ruling MPLA party, speaks at his party's final election rally in Luanda, Angola, August 19, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Eisenhammer

LUANDA (Reuters) - João Lourenço, Angola’s ruling party candidate for president, said on Tuesday he would not be hamstrung by his powerful predecessor if he wins election as he pledged to revive Africa’s third largest economy and tackle rampant corruption.

Speaking the day before a general election that will see the first change in president for 38 years, Lourenço said he wanted to lead an “economic miracle” and would consider seeking help from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

Lourenço is widely expected to win Wednesday’s vote, though it remained uncertain whether his party, facing discontent over the state of the economy and allegations of graft, would secure the two thirds majority needed to govern alone.

The ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) won 72 percent of the vote at the last election in 2012.

Questions remain about how much control Lourenço would have if he wins the presidency, given that veteran leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos will continue as head of the MPLA and have potentially sweeping powers over decision-making.

Dos Santos’ family hold top jobs with his daughter, Isabel, heading national oil producer Sonangol, and his son José Filomeno in charge of the state investment fund.

“I think I will have all the power. I only wouldn’t have all the power if there were two presidents of the country, which is not the case,” Lourenço told foreign media in Luanda.

Supporters cheer as Joao Lourenco, presidential candidate for the ruling MPLA party, speaks at an election rally in Malanje, Angola, August 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Eisenhammer

In a rare press conference, Lourenço made clear that his priority would be to fix the economy which, after years of rapid growth, contracted 3.6 percent last year as Africa’s second largest oil producer was hit by a fall in crude prices.

ECONOMIC TURMOIL

Unemployment is officially over 20 percent, while a shortage of foreign currency has forced firms to pull back operations. Analysts expect Angola to devalue its currency by the end of the year and potentially seek help from the IMF.

”We will have to resolve this problem (the economy) in some way ... It is not ruled out negotiating also with the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund,” Lourenco said.

The former defence minister, who joined the MPLA in his early 20s during the violent struggle for independence from Portugal, promised to combat graft but stopped short of offering unreserved help to international prosecutions against Angolans which he said were sometimes politically motivated.

In one such case, a judge in Portugal has ruled that Angolan Vice President Manuel Vicente should stand trial on corruption and money laundering charges.

Asked whether he could guarantee that under his government, graft would be prosecuted even among the political elite, Lourenço said: “That guarantee I give...The law is for everyone.”

But it was to the economy Lourenço kept returning, promising to develop agriculture and tourism in a bid to diversify away from a reliance on oil. “I would like to pass into history as the man of the economic miracle of Angola...That’s my mission.”

Editing by Joe Brock/Mark Heinrich

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