LUANDA, Angola – Angola's second election in 20 years will test the popularity of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos after a decade of peace has brought fabulous wealth for some in a country rich in oil and diamonds but left more than a third of its citizens mired in abject poverty.
The 70-year-old dos Santos, who has never been directly elected in 32 years in power, is widely expected to stay in the presidency in the legislative elections Friday that will also determine who gets to lead the former Portuguese colony.
Still, his opponents have grown outspoken, like thousands of young people who appeared at an opposition protest last weekend to demand that the elections be free and fair. Many of the protesters were unemployed, and angry that so many Angolans have not benefitted from the country's resurgence after decades of war.
"Where does all our wealth go? Angola is rich, but Angolans suffer!" said Adriano Luca.
Jose Pex do Rio said he was protesting even though he belongs to dos Santos' ruling party.
"This government needs to change," he declared, adding, "Not all of us protesting against electoral fraud belong to UNITA," the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola and the biggest opposition party.
Among objections are alleged errors on the list of registered voters. "Even the dead will vote during these elections!" exclaimed Pedro Diogo.
On Friday some 9.7 million people, about half the population, are registered to vote for nine contending parties and coalitions. The National Elections Commission rejected 18 opposition coalitions, along with a raft of complaints. Ascertaining voters' identities could be a problem since, according to the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, only 5.7 percent of Angolans have any kind of legal document.
The scoreboard is mixed in this southern African nation which was a Cold War battlefield for 27 years, with dos Santos' Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola , or 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.
Since the war ended soon after Savimbi's death in a 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 — 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.
In the runup to the election, the biggest surprise was the creation in April of the Broad Convergence for Angola's Salvation which unites former key UNITA 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.
"The MPLA's behavior during the electoral process has at times been unlawful, which leads us to conclude that, if fraud is necessary to win, the MPLA will commit fraud," Mendes de Carvalho told The Associated Press.
As an example of the uneven playing field, he pointed to the fact that dos Santos' party has been campaigning for months using government resources while opposition parties get only $80,000 each from government coffers, much of it delivered belatedly.
Dos Santos' party also has a near-monopoly on the national media that it has used to help campaign. 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.
"Angola: Growing more, distributing better," is the ruling party's election slogan, hinting at disparities in wealth distribution.
UNITA leader Isaias Samakuva has promised, if elected, to raise the monthly minimum wage from less than $100 to $500 in a country with the most expensive capital in the world for expatriates. Samakuva also promised to launch an emergency program to fight poverty and introduce separate presidential and legislative elections.
"Most Angolans are left at the mercy of hunger and misery," Samakuva wrote in the UNITA election manifesto.
Samakuva said he had confirmed reports that soldiers in the Military Affairs Cabinet that reports directly to the office of the president are being trained to work in polling stations under the pretext of being logistical supervisors and polling agents. 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
In legislative elections in 2008, dos Santos' party swept to victory with 82 percent of votes. UNITA won only 8 percent but is expected to pick up a few more votes Friday from people unhappy with the lack of democracy and inequalities. Presidential elections scheduled 2009 were never held. Last year, the government changed the constitution so that the No. 1 candidate of the winning party in parliamentary elections becomes president.
UNITA alleges numerous violations that would make the vote neither free nor fair, though it has won some victories. Allowing Angolans overseas to vote and early voting have been cancelled by the elections committee, denying a form of voting that many feared would allow fraud. And UNITA's charges that the former electoral commission chairman was partisan led to her being replaced by Supreme Court Judge Andre da Silva Neto. The vote will be monitored by 3,000 national and 1,500 international election observers, though all have yet to be accredited by the elections committee.
The campaign period has been marred by government-sponsored political violence, intimidation of protesters and crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations in order to influence the elections, Human Rights Watch charged in an Aug. 1 report.
Last month, the New York-based rights organization accused the government of abductions and possible enforced disappearances of several protest organizers. It said there are unconfirmed reports that three protesters were shot and killed during a protest by war veterans demanding to be paid their social subsidies and pensions.
Last Saturday's opposition protest was peaceful. Most attendees were under 35, some from the small revolutionary youth movement which accuses the government of corruption, mismanagement of oil revenues and causing widespread poverty. It is inspired by the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East and by local anti-government rappers.
"At a public school or hospital, you won't meet the child of any of our public officials. They undergo medical treatment abroad. Their kids study abroad," rapper MC K told a reporter. "My ideal Angola is one with equal opportunities for all."