Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Angola errs in ending presidential elections

Africa's biggest oil producer should strengthen, not weaken, its democracy.

Angola's President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, 67 and in power for 30 years, has abolished direct presidential elections. Here he waves as he leaves Sao Bento Palace after a meeting with Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates in Lisbon, March 11, 2009. (Hugo Correia/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Angola, Africa’s biggest oil producer, had hoped that hosting January’s Africa Cup of Nations would bring positive publicity to the country.

Those hopes of promoting a good picture of Angola were first dashed when Angolan separatists attacked the bus carrying the Togo team, killing three people. This made many question Angola's security.

And then on Jan. 21, the Angolan parliament voted to change the country’s constitution to abolish direct presidential elections. This action made many question Angola's commitment to democracy.

The Angolan government should not have modified the constitution. It risks eroding its progress toward becoming a major international player, and it has called into question the seriousness of its efforts to develop the country.

Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, 67 and in power for 30 years, had promised last year to hold presidential elections. He called the change to abolish direct presidential elections a “significant advance in the consolidation of our democratic process and the creation of the conditions for a harmonious and sustainable country." On the contrary, the new constitution is a consolidation of presidential power and a recipe for long-term political instability.

Under it, the president is the head of the party that earns the most votes in parliamentary elections. Since dos Santos controls the selection of parliamentary candidates, he now effectively “controls everything,” as one Angolan professor told the New York Times.

The new constitution also allows the president to choose a vice president, as well as to serve two more five-year terms. Since approval of the constitution, dos Santos has reshuffled his cabinet and appointed a new vice president, a move seen as a further consolidation of power.

Dos Santos and his party, the Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola (MPLA), control 191 of 220 parliamentary seats in Angola. The opposition party, the Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA), has little sway within the government. Given the MPLA’s overwhelming hold on the government, changing the constitution was unnecessary.

In the 2008 parliamentary elections, the MPLA won 82 percent of the vote. No candidate was expected to mount a viable challenge to dos Santos in a direct presidential election.

Prior to January’s constitutional change, Africa analysts had been taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Angola, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding presidential elections. Luanda was clearly trying to boost its international credibility, and it had met with some success. After joining the OPEC oil cartel in 2007, Angola assumed the presidency of the cartel in 2009.