A political earthquake struck Angola on 24 August through the ballot box. The incumbent party of government – the MPLA – saw its share of the vote decline from 61 percent to 51.17 percent: a dramatic decline of 9.9 percent. The MPLA has been the only party to govern the country since it gained independence from Portugal in 1975, but saw its poorest showing since 2008 (when it was at a high of 81.6 percent). Abstention increased to 55.17 percent, and low turnout was also noticeable among most diaspora although they were allowed to vote for the first time.
The MPLA's win of 124 seats represents a less than two‑thirds majority, meaning that a future MPLA government will find it hard to make constitutional amendments. The presidential post goes to the head of the party with the most seats. The president-elect — the incumbent, João Lourenço (widely known as JLo) and his new vice-president elect, Esperança Maria Eduardo Francisco da Costa with their party, will need to dialogue more consistently with their main competitor, UNITA. The opposition party, UNITA significantly increased its vote to 43.94 percent – winning 90 seats. This is a remarkable turn-around for UNITA, considering it was militarily defeated twenty years ago. The MPLA and UNITA, formerly anti-colonial guerrilla groups, were on opposing sides of the post-independence civil war that lasted until 2002, when Angolan troops killed UNITA's rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi.
All 90 constituency seats went to the two largest parties. MPLA won 57, mostly in the central and south regions, while UNITA won 33, being strongest in the north-west. Of the nationwide seats, MPLA won 67 and UNITA 57. The vote for CASA-CE collapsed; having won 9 percent of the vote in the previous general election, they received just 0.76 percent and lost all 16 of the seats they previously held. CASA-CE supporters, mostly transferred their vote to UNITA, contributing to its electoral surge.
UNITA won outright majorities for the first time in the capital Luanda and in the northern province of Zaire. The electorate in the enclave province of Cabinda also voted overwhelmingly for UNITA for the first time, contributing to CASA-CE not winning any seats. A new party created three months before the elections, PHA (Partido Humanista de Angola), led by ex-UNITA official and journalist Bela Malaquias, won two seats (also contributing to CASA-CE’s loss); the historic FNLA gained one seat to two. And the Lunda provinces focused PRS retained their two due to their nationwide vote tally.
The election dust has not yet settled. Observers have reported “shortcomings" in the preparation of the vote and the failure to display the voters' lists "compromised transparency" at some polling stations. UNITA filed on 1 September an electoral complaint with the Constitutional Court, asking for the annulment of the August 24 general elections, because of “several illegalities” in the process. UNITA had already challenged the results through the National Election Commission (CNE) – of which four of its sixteen electoral commissioners did not sign off on the results, expressing doubts about the process. The UNITA leader Adalberto Costa Júnior said he expected the constitutional court and the CNE to do their jobs by comparing their vote count with the party’s vote tally. On 6 September, UNITA and its Frente Patriótica Unida partners issued a Final Declaration, outrightly rejecting the official election results and claiming they won, documenting irregularities and calling for an inclusive commission composed of the CNE, members of political parties and members of civil society to review the results, with observers present. The Constitutional Court is still to make its final ruling over the results. After the 2017 elections, the Court rejected a similar legal challenge to the election lodged by several opposition parties, including UNITA – this should be expected again. UNITA once again is likely to eventually take up its seats in the National Assembly, but will continue to reject the gap in votes. The difference this time is that the majority view on the street in Luanda is that fraud occurred, and UNITA will try to politically capitalise on this, which could lead to some violence.
This result remains a seismic shock for both JLo and the MPLA. The party entered the election, complacent and factionalised, as it overlapped with the death in July of its previous leader and Angola’s president for 38 years, José Eduardo dos Santos, with a visible dispute over the curation of his death and burial. These results will focus minds and could provide JLo the impetus to deepen his reform efforts of the party, government, and state. The key question is, will the MPLA accept reform and the need to enter more concessional politics? JLo has a new five-year mandate to turn things around and this is possible for the following reasons:
- A low turnout favoured UNITA – many MPLA and undecided voters abstained in protest.
- Much of the new vote for UNITA is leant, given as a protest vote. Even in Luanda’s polling station 105, normally a pure MPLA neighbourhood (and where JLo and his family voted), the party lost. If an MPLA government delivers, this will reduce.
- UNITA promised in Cabinda province it would support increased devolution and it also attracted votes in Zaire province and Lunda Norte for its promises to review illegal artisanal mining and informal migration. These promises will be closely watched.
- Positive economic prospects ahead will work in his favour.
Creating a more diversified economy with improved living standards is key if JLo is to redeem his party and himself. Despite a honeymoon of several years once elected in 2017, JLo and the MPLA’s poor electoral showing is due to the worsening living standards during his first term. Angola in 2022 has just exited a five-year recession caused by a commodity slump and worsened by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was additionally compounded by the effects of the fiscal austerity measures required under the 2018‑21 IMF programme, which won international acclaim but particularly impacted urban areas.
This does not mean that JLo should rid himself of his economic team. Prudent spending, despite the 24 August elections, has seen the Ministry of Finance maintaining regular FX sales in the market and accelerating local debt repayments, thereby lowering government paper yields for example. Elevated global oil prices, averaging more than US$100 per barrel in 2022, have also helped to create fiscal buffers, which support future government expenditure. The International Monetary Fund predicts that record-high oil prices will drive up Angola’s economic output, when measured in dollars, by around 40 percent this year.
A material decline in the public debt-to-GDP ratio towards 65 percent in 2022, from a high of 127 percent in 2020, and high debt-service ratios may, however, still limit Angola’s borrowing capacity. Angola’s overall debt-service-to-revenue ratio is projected at 82.1 percent this year, from 70.8 percent in 2021, but lower than the recent peak of 114.2 percent in 2020.
Angola has also resumed already the principal repayments on part of its US$21.4bn debt to China that had benefited from the pandemic’s 3-year debt reprofiling under the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (that ended in December 2021), this will result in the external debt-service-to-revenue ratio rising next year but increased oil rents should assist managing this.
With increased global interest rates and a weakening global economy, there will be limited room for public borrowing, so Angola may therefore need to speed up structural reforms to support a private-sector-led growth strategy.
JLo has promised that the priorities for his second term will be economic diversification, job creation, education strengthening, modernisation of public administration, state decentralisation and expansion of health and basic sanitation. He has also noted that this requires reforms and investment and that the private sector and other stakeholders, including development partners, are likely playing critical roles.
Employment will be the biggest challenge for the MPLA. About half of Angola’s 14 million registered voters are under the age of 36, and youth unemployment was close to 60 percent in 2021. The oil industry does not generate enough jobs, and Angola remains way too dependent upon it. Higher oil prices though do offer JLo an opportunity to improve livelihoods, through subsidies and investments in diversifying the economy and upscaling Angolans' skills.
The creation of a technocratic government drawing in talent from across Angola and from its diaspora is needed now. The August 2022 election results are a new episode in Angola’s post-independence nation building journey. This is the time for visionary leadership, brave reforms, and humility, if Angola is to grow its economy, reduce poverty and realise its full potential as a future powerhouse of Africa. This is also an opportunity for UNITA to demonstrate that it can hold the MPLA to account and constructively encourage better policy for the benefit of all Angolans.