It is a contest that will be familiar to many – not just in Angola but in every country across Africa where anyone remembers the cold war. It pits the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the political party that has ruled the southern African country for more than four decades, against the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), which has been battling to gain control for more than 50 years. The two are no longer warring over trenches, airstrips and dusty roads through scrubby forests, but fighting for the backing of 9 million voters as Angola goes to the polls on Wednesday to elect a new president. Angola’s civil war lasted more than 25 years, ending in 2002, leaving the country devastated. Since then more than $100bn has been spent on reconstruction. The stakes are now not quite as high as when MPLA troops, backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union, clashed with Unita forces, supported by South Africa and the US, in the 1980s, but few doubt the importance of the poll.
“It would be extremely surprising if the MPLA loses power, but this is the first time in the past 40 years where there is uncertainty over what happens next,” said Søren Kirk Jensen, an expert on Angola at the independent policy institute Chatham House.
One major change will follow the poll. After 38 years in power, José Eduardo dos Santos is not seeking re-election. The 74-year-old has guided the MPLA from hardline Marxism to a rapacious capitalism that enemies say has been tarnished by cronyism, nepotism and corruption. Now, weakened by illness, he is stepping down.