Dos Santos at the helm

Long-standing president Jose Eduardo dos Santos is once again firmly established at the helm of Angola's ruling MPLA after he was elected without opposition to the party's presidency.

The congress, which ended last week, voted in Dos Santos by acclamation, paving the way for him to run again in national elections he has said will not be held before 2005.

"Dos Santos is very firmly in the saddle," said Herman van der Linde, consultant at South Africa-based Executive Research Associates. "Ten to one, he'll run - I think that's a given at this stage."

Challenge of democracy

Defence minister and MPLA central committee member Kundi Payama defended the party's decision to field just one candidate at the congress.

"For us, Dos Santos is very dear. He has dedicated his whole life to this process. We are in a period of transition, and we don't want to introduce ideas that could lead to a lack of control or anarchy," he commented.

Neutral observers agreed that the party was entitled to elect its leader in whatever way it saw fit, but were alarmed by the fuzzy line between the MPLA party and the government itself.

"It does appear to an outsider visiting that there isn't a great distinction between the party and the government. That's not a circumstance which one thinks of in terms of a democracy," Aryeh Neier, president of the democracy watchdog, the Open Society Institute (OSI), told IRIN.

The main opposition party, UNITA, has voiced its own concern over the fairness of the upcoming national elections presided over by the government.

"It will be a challenge, because no institution that's not democratic itself will improve conditions for democracy in the country as a whole," said Abel Chivukuvuku, UNITA's secretary for electoral issues.

One Angola-watcher argued it would take time for the MPLA and Dos Santos, who has been president since 1979, to get used to the idea of a more democratic and multiparty system.

"After so many years of being the only party, it's not possible for them to change overnight. Most of the younger generation were born in a one-party system, and the MPLA is still referred to as 'o partido' or 'the party', as if there were only one," the observer said.

Dos Santos, by surrounding himself with trusted insiders, has meanwhile further cemented his position in the party. The central committee last Friday appointed Antonio Pitra Neto, a key Dos Santos ally, to the newly created post of vice-president.

Pitra Neto, a former general who hails from the oil-rich enclave of Cabinda, where separatists are still fighting government forces, is seen as someone Dos Santos could groom as a successor.

The naming of Juliao Mateus Paulo "Dino Matrosse" as secretary-general to replace Joao Lourenco, who had reportedly irked the president by declaring he wanted to run as a candidate for the national presidency, reinforced the party leadership.

Challenge of development

Away from the party congress, the lives of most ordinary Angolans have shown little improvement since the signing in 2002 of a peace accord with UNITA, which ended 27 years of civil war.

Despite vast oil and diamond wealth, most of the country's 13 million people live in poverty, half have no access to clean drinking water, and one child in every four is likely to die before their fifth birthday, UNICEF figures show.

The congress, with its "Peace, National Reconciliation and Growth" slogan, pledged to rebuild the health, education and infrastructure destroyed by the conflict.

"As usual, the words are very nice, but the facts are unfortunately very different," commented one Western diplomat.

The period leading up to elections is usually an opportunity for opposition parties and civil society to get their message across, but there are many question marks hanging over the transparency of Angola's electoral process.

The last poll, in 1992, was deemed generally free and fair by the international community, but UNITA contested the results and returned to fighting.

"Will the opposition have access to state broadcasting, or will state broadcasting essentially be used as a vehicle for the ruling party to maintain its authority? Will there be an independent electoral commission which will set the ground rules for the election? What kind of international observation will there be for the elections? There are many factors which one will have to consider in determining whether the elections contribute to a democratic process in Angola," said OSI's Neier.

State media is alleged to be biased - the official newspaper Jornal de Angola refers to the MPLA as "comrades" - and UNITA is woefully short of the cash it needs to become a national party, broaden its base away from the rural areas, and continue its transformation from a rebel army to a viable opposition party.

"Opposition members speak openly of being offered money in exchange for making political concessions," said Nicholas Shaxson, associate fellow at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs. "The MPLA will use its oil money to find all the ways it can to tip the playing field in their favour ahead of elections."