Pro-democracy groups join forces for early polls

Angolan civil society and opposition parties joined forces on Tuesday to prod the government into announcing an election date and encouraging greater respect for democracy.

Around 30 groups launched the 'Campaign for a Democratic Angola', which aims to put pressure on the government of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, arguing that the status quo has done little to improve the lot of Angola's 13 million people after almost two years of peace.

"We want to generate enough pressure to claim the realisation of the current constitution, define when elections will be held and under what conditions and to prepare citizens to play a more active role in changing society," Rafael Marques, coordinator for the campaign, said in a statement.

"We need elections as soon as possible to enable people to choose who they want to lead this country. We - as civil society and opposition - must not wait for the ruling party to set a date at its own convenience, we need to create our own alternatives," Marques said.

The government has argued that it cannot set an election date until it has revamped the Angolan constitution, but opposition parties and non-governmental organisations (NGO) allege that this is just a stalling tactic.

"In our country elections have not been always taken in high consideration. The year 2004 should be, constitutionally, the year of elections in Angola. But unfortunately the government persists in its illegality and illegitimacy," Adriano Parreira, the president of the Angolan Independence Party (PAI), told IRIN.

"The most important thing about this campaign is to build a new consciousness about democracy and the importance of the elections," he said.

Dos Santos has been in power since 1979, and his MPLA party since 1975. The last elections held in Angola in 1992 were deemed generally free and fair by the international community, but the then rebel group UNITA contested the results and returned to war. The conflict ended in April 2002 shortly after the killing of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi.

UNITA announced at Tuesday's launch that it would also back the campaign – a move applauded by those present.

"We feel close to this initiative. We ourselves have similar initiatives which aim to bring us all together, the basis of which will be the elections and forming a united platform for all political parties," UNITA official Azevedo d’Oliveira told IRIN.

"We believe we are the strongest opposition party but we don’t want to silence the voices of other opposition parties," he said.

UNITA and other opposition political groups in Angola, which number more than 100, have called for elections in 2005, but the government has said it was unlikely they would be held before 2006.

In a straw poll on Tuesday, more than 90 percent of the 200-plus attendees said they wanted a poll this year or next, and two thirds said that the country should not wait for a new constitution to press ahead with ballot preparations.

"Like our slogan says, 'Peace without democracy is a fantasy', so this is extremely important for the country," commented Maria de Fatima Aguiar da Fanseca, vice president of the NGO Women for Peace and Development.

"We need to live in a democracy and for that people need to vote. That's why a date for elections must be set so that people can choose democratically," she said.

By combining their voices, the campaign members hope to create a "common alternative agenda" which will make the government sit up and take notice of civil society and opposition opinions.

"We want to encourage government, including members of the MPLA and UNITA, to be open to other initiatives that are for the benefit of the country, not of the parties," Marques said.

"Our hope is that if citizens are taking these kinds of initiatives by themselves, the ruling party will see more clearly that either it engages in serious talks with other sectors of the society or it will be left behind," he said.

Some observers, however, criticised the initiative, saying it was moving too quickly and only skimming the surface of the issues involved.

"This has been rushed through. There has not been a debate and discussion about this campaign, so people don't really know what they are signing up for," said one. "They want democracy but they are not organising this in a democratic way – there's no discussion, no representation."

The new campaign brings together groups from four provinces and includes four political parties represented in parliament. It intends to expand to four more provinces before June with the ultimate aim of becoming a national organisation.

"This is a new partnership for democracy. I believe that from now on people will consider very seriously that democracy ... is a permanent, participative activity. This is the most important message we want to give in this room," Parreira said.

"Of course we feel stronger and happier, and it gives us a new motivation to fight through the government's anti-democratic attitudes. It gives us a new enthusiasm, a new momentum," he added, expressing his disappointment that no MPLA representative had accepted an invitation to attend the launch.

With its substantial oil and diamond wealth, Angola should be one of the richest countries on the continent, but after 27-years of war the country is still in tatters.

Figures from the United Nations Children's Fund show that Angola has one of the world's worst under-five mortality rates, 80 percent of homes do not have electricity and around half of all Angolans remain without safe water, proper health care or education.