Angola chooses successor to President Jose Eduardo dos Santos

After decades in power, Angola's President Jose Eduardo dos Santos will not take part in Wednesday's elections. Many Angolans now hope for a political change, as Antonio Cascais reports from Luanda.

"Long live Angola! The fight continues! Victory is certain!" hailed Angola's long-term President Jose Eduardo dos Santos in last Saturday's appearance at the ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA's) party campaign rally. His appearance was brief, essentially limited to reverberating the party's well-known slogans. Dos Santos said he was sure the MPLA will win the elections on August 23 and wished his designated successor Joao Lourenco success.

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Not so many Angolans disagree with dos Santos' predictions. According to a 35-year-old hip-hop artist, Luaty Beirao, elections in Angola are "like an old cinema film, which is always being re-released." Beirao said young Angolans want "change, new faces, and different politics." But the same party always ends up wining. This was the same case in the 1992, 2008 and 2012 elections.

'Control delusion' of the ruling party

Luaty Beirao sits on a park bench at the "Marginal", a promenade in Luanda, and looks out to the sea. The Pracht Street was redesigned shortly before the 2012 elections for around 340 million euro ($400 million). Shortly before the elections, new public buildings were inaugurated including roads, tunnels, and dams. Beirao's meetings with DW's reporter was fixed through different social media networks and re-arranged several times. His said government agents listen in on his phone calls. He thinks the governing party is suffering from control delusion and suspicious of any opposing voice.

The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola is the second largest political party in Angola

Beirao is part of a small group of young people fighting the regime of President dos Santos. He has been arrested several times. In 2015, he went on hunger strike for a week as a prisoner of conscience. He has not given up his fight until today and continued to protest during the election campaigns. He and his colleagues demonstrated against the government's restrictions on freedom of assembly for civil society groups directly in front of the Ministry of the Interior.

Beirao often criticizes shortfalls in Angola. "It's a shame on the ongoing election campaigns," he said. "We had merciless media propaganda for a month against a particular party. Many voters, especially those of the opposition, are experiencing a massive reduction in their right to vote because they are allocated to polling stations far from their homes, some in a different region."

"All parties are equal, but one party is more equal than others"

In fact, the governing MPLA dominated the four week election campaign period, which ended on Monday. If size and number of the campaign bills were to be counted, then one would have to speak of a massive victory for MPLA against the five opposition parties.

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In terms of media presence, Beirao said there was no "equal treatment of all parties," as provided for in Article 64 of the Angolan Electoral Code. Both state and private television stations broadcast several election campaigns of the government candidate live and in full length. The oppositions' campaigns, on the other hand, were given short air time.

Opposition groups are also suspicious of the composition of the electoral commission. According to the 2011 electoral laws, their members should be independent. But 10 of the 17 members of the commissioners were appointed by the government. Among them are the president and the parliamentary speaker.

The Broad Convergence for the Salvation of Angola – Electoral Coalition is the third largest political group formed in 2012

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On the streets of Luanda, the mood for change is noticeable. The economic situation is catastrophic; low oil prices on the world market tore deep holes in the state's budget. Unemployment is on the rise. Many young Angolans that DW spoke to said they need a new government that will tackle the biggest problems facing youths, which are unemployment and the lack of training opportunities.

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For many Angolans, the desire for change is met by the fact that long-term president dos Santos is not going away after 38 years. Most Angolans have never experienced any other head of state. The fact that the party wants to put a new man at the head of the state, is understood by many as a sign of change.

But human rights activist Luaty Beirao disagrees. He thinks if Lourenco is elected, he will primarily represent the interests of the outgoing president and not meddle with any of his previous decisions. In addition, dos Santos will remain chairman of the governing party until 2018. Beirao said that the loyalties of most lawmakers first of all belong to the ruling party because the president is not directly elected by the people of Angola, but rather by the largest political party. The question is, "Who is the most powerful man in the country? The new president or the old and new party chairman?"

Man of continuity or a man of change?

In the election campaigns, Joao Lourenco showed he has mastered this balance quite skillfully. His electoral slogan was "Keeping the good - improving the less good!" A slogan that still sounds appealing to many Angolans.

His sharpest competitors - Isaías Samakuva from the former rebel group UNITA and Abel Chivukuvuku of the CASA-CE, which was founded in 2012, rely on the desire of many Angolans for change. They promise corruption-free policies, more freedom and, above all, justice. The charismatic Chivukuvuku said on his final campaign rally last Sunday that the immeasurable riches of the country would be equally distributed among the population. Apart from the MPLA, the UNITA and the CASA-CE, three other parties are also vying for the votes of the approximately 9.5 million voters.

However, one thing is certain ahead of Wednesday's election; another person other than Jose Eduardo dos Santos will be at the helm of Angola. Everything else remain open: will the "new person" come from the ranks of the MPLA or from the ranks of the opposition? And will he choose continuity or change?

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

The fight for Angolan independence

At the age of 19, Jose Eduardo dos Santos joined the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), a Marxist-inspired party fighting for Angola's freedom from Portuguese colonial rule. In 1963, dos Santos received a scholarship to study petrochemistry in the former Soviet Union, where he later went on to train in military communications. In 1970, he returned to Angola.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

A place at the Cabinet table

After independence from Portugal was declared in 1975, civil war broke out between the three independence movements: the MPLA, UNITA and FNLA. The capital city Luanda was under MPLA control. The party leader, Agostinho Neto (pictured), became the first president of an independent Angola and established a one-party system. Dos Santos was appointed foreign minister and later planning minister.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

Alliance with the Eastern Bloc

In September 1979, Neto died in Moscow. The MPLA chose dos Santos to be the new president of Angola. He strengthened alliances with communist countries in the Eastern Bloc - such as the Soviet Union, Cuba and East Germany. In 1981, he visited East Germany and was received by Erich Honecker (pictured, left), the general secretary of the Socialist Unity Party.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

A divided world: East versus West

During his stay in East Germany, dos Santos visited the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall - both symbols of the Cold War and the divide between East and West. In Angola, the Cold War had turned into a "hot" proxy war. The West - particularly South Africa and the United States - supported UNITA, while the East stood with the MPLA.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

Side-by-side with Cuba

Cuba took the militarily weak MPLA government under its wing. It sent 40,000 soldiers to fight in Angola, for example in 1988 in the battle of Cuito Canavale - one of the deadliest in the Angolan civil war. Three years later, an initial peace accord was signed in Portugal.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

The peace deal breaks down

The first free elections took place in 1992. The MPLA won a parliamentary majority but dos Santos did not secure an outright victory in the first round of the presidential election. The runoff against Jonas Savimbi, the leader of UNITA, never took place. War broke out again after UNITA rejected the elections, casting allegations of vote-rigging.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

The West loses interest

Once the Cold War was over, the West lost interest in the Angolan civil war. In 1993, the US recognized the MPLA government, which was increasingly embracing capitalism. After Apartheid had come to an end in South Africa, UNITA lost its most important ally. A 1994 peace deal in Angola also broke down, and dos Santos went into full-on military mode.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

Wading into the Congo Crisis

In 1998, the Angolan military came to the aid of Laurent-Desire Kabila (pictured) during the Congo crisis. By helping Kabila become president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, dos Santos was able to remove one of UNITA's areas of refuge. This move also established Angola as a leading military power in southern Africa.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

Taking down Savimbi

An international weapons embargo weakened UNITA, which was becoming increasingly isolated. On February 22, 2002, government troops killed UNITA's leader Jonas Savimbi (pictured). In the same year, UNITA and MPLA signed another peace deal. This brought one of Africa's bloodiest civil wars - in which 1 million people died and 4 million fled the country - to an end.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

Reminders of war

Many years after the end of the civil war, the destruction is still evident across the country. The armed forces continued to play an important role in the Angolan president's leadership. Clashes between government forces the separatist group FLEC still occur regularly in the northern enclave of Cabinda.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

Postponed elections

The second parliamentary elections, planned for 1997, did not take place until 2008. The MPLA emerged victorious, with 81.6 percent of the votes, while UNITA secured 10.4 percent. There were complaints of voter intimidation and poor organization. The 2009 presidential election was called off and dos Santos stayed in power.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

An uncertain partnership

In 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Angola and even signed a "strategic partnership" with dos Santos. German companies initially showed interest in investment opportunities in Angola - but few projects actually came to fruition in subsequent years.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

Stifling the opposition

Inspired by the Arab Spring, young Angolans took to the streets in 2011 to protest against dos Santos. The police used force to suppress demonstrations and activists were arrested. In 2013, the presidential guard shot two opposition activists. Members of the Adventist sect "Luz do Mundo" (Light of the World) were also targeted. Human rights observers accused the police of extrajudicial killings.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

Legitimate leadership

In 2010, parliament changed the constitution and abolished direct presidential elections. The leader of the party with the most votes in the parliamentary elections would become president. In 2012, the MPLA took 71.9 percent of the votes. After 32 years in office, dos Santos had democratic legitimacy for the first time. Observers argued that the opposition did not have a fair chance.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

Family man

Family is also a powerful driving force behind the dos Santos leadership. He met his third and current wife, former model Ana Paula dos Santos (pictured), when she was working as a stewardess on the presidential plane. They married in 1991 and had four children. Ana Paula dos Santos will be put forward as an MPLA parliamentary candidate this year.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

The richest woman in Africa

Dos Santos' daughter Isabel - who he had with his former wife, Russian chess champion Tatiana Kukanova - was named the richest woman in Africa by Forbes magazine in 2011. She has invested in businesses ranging from telecommunications to sports. Dos Santos' son José Filomeno - from his second marriage, to Filomena de Sousa - leads the state investment fund.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

Scratching China's back

China is dos Santos' new best friend. The country is the main buyer of Angolan oil and Chinese credit has funded Angolan infrastructure projects. With this money, Chinese firms have built whole districts in Angola, like Kilamba Kiaxi (pictured). Unlike the IMF and western lenders, China does not impose any loan conditions based on transparency or human rights.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

Poverty and development

Despite the country's oil wealth, many Angolans still live in extreme poverty. The country has the highest global rate of death among infants. Even in the middle of the capital city, Luanda, there are neighborhoods without waste water disposal. Health services, which are often only offered privately, are too expensive for many people. The education system is similarly underdeveloped.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

Keeping a low profile

It is rare to see dos Santos in interviews or press conferences and he seldom gives speeches. In recent years, the president has traveled regularly to Spain for medical treatment. Only one African leader - Teodoro Obiang of Equitorial Guinea - has been in office longer than dos Santos.

Dos Santos: Angola's 'eternal' president

A successor for dos Santos

Once dos Santos announced that he would not be standing again for office in August 2017, the MPLA put forward Defense Minister Joao Lourenco (pictured) as its main candidate for the parliamentary elections. However, Dos Santos will remain the leader of the party, ensuring his continued presence in Angolan politics.