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ANGOLA: Uncertainty increases over election date

luanda, 16 February 2006 (IRIN) - As Angolans eagerly await their first peacetime elections, the chances of the southwest African country's first ballot in more than a decade happening this year are growing increasingly slim.

With electoral preparations such as voter registration moving at a glacial pace, many observers had started to seriously doubt whether a 2006 poll was achievable. That view was given extra credence by President Jose Eduardo dos Santos last month when he said the condition of the country's infrastructure should be improved prior to any vote.

"The party must encourage the government to conclude its programme of rehabilitation of primary road and rail links in 2007 to that participation by citizens in the next polls is substantial," Dos Santos said in a speech to the members of his ruling MPLA party in late January.

The president's comments - his first hint that elections could be postponed beyond 2006 - prompted groans among opposition parties, political analysts and ordinary Angolans anxious to see a poll take place as soon as possible.

"The president's comments have cast a shadow over whether elections will even be held next year," said one international aid worker. "We are slightly further on than a year ago in that we have an election law, but without a calendar to work towards there is an enormous feeling of uncertainty," the aid worker added.

Angola's first ever ballot was held in 1992, and the hope was the elections would seal a fragile peace after 17-years of civil war. The ballot was deemed generally free and fair by the international community, but then rebel group UNITA contested the results and fighting resumed.

The conflict finally came to an end in April 2002 and groups like UNITA, which has disarmed and is now Angola's main opposition party, see elections as a chance to normalise the political process, allowing development and peace-building projects to move forward.

Alcides Sakala, UNITA's secretary for public administration agreed that rebuilding the country's war-shattered infrastructure was an obvious priority. But he argued that it was a long-term process that should continue after elections and accused the ruling MPLA party of using reconstruction as a political tool to win votes.

"It is a pity if elections have to depend on the process of reconstructing the country," he told IRIN. "It will take years to rebuild roads, hospitals and schools. You can not rebuild in two years what was destroyed in 30 years of war.

"Dos Santos wants to run and he wants to be sure that he wins. He thinks in order to win he has to show that he has been doing work," he added. "If we have to have a perfect process then it will take longer to hold elections. One year, five years, 10 years? Nobody knows."

Political analysts contended that the delay could be a tactic to leverage more funds for reconstruction from the international community or, alternatively, a stalling tactic to take their opponents unawares.

"The president only has to give 90 days advance notice of the election date. He could use this to keep the opposition guessing. It would be a great way to wrongfoot them," said one expert.

WAITING GAME

Holding elections in Angola will be no easy task. The war left roads, railways and bridges in tatters, many areas are littered with landmines and a large chunk of the country's estimated 13 million people have no identity documents.

"The sooner Angola sets an election calendar, the easier it will be for all agencies - political parties and civil society actors - to begin planning properly," said Barbara Smith, Director for election programming at the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

Sakala stressed that UNITA was prepared for elections, whenever they are held, and agreed that the increased uncertainly surrounding an election timetable was bad for the country.

"Angola has to begin to stabilise institutions so we can have real programmes for development. As long as this situation continues there is hesitation among potential investors in the country," he said.

"But more serious than that is the lack of interest among the people in the system," he added. "We have to motivate people because we still have to build peace. We're going very, very, very slow and we need to move faster."

These days, talk of elections among ordinary Angolans triggers only shrugs and sighs with little sign yet of any excitement about the prospect of change.

"Yes we are looking forward to elections but how long will we have to wait?" asked Roja, a student.

He said there was a lack of confidence in politicians from all sides and the political system as a whole. Dithering over an election timetable simply confirmed opinions on the street that "politicians look after themselves first and care little about the people they are supposed to represent".

The MPLA has been in power since 1975 and Dos Santos has ruled since 1979. Four years of peace and substantial oil riches have brought little improvement to the lives of most Angolans, factors which have helped perpetuate a fatalistic attitude.

"The politicians do nothing for us and they will do nothing for us in the future. Only God can help us," said Tete, a maid working in Luanda, brushing aside any other talk of elections with a dismissive wave of her hand.

Sakala was worried that this impatience and indifference would intensify the longer the population had to wait for elections.

"People think that being poor is normal. They have to remember that if there is change, perhaps life will be different. We have to create a new dynamic," he said.

"Angola has so many priorities. It needs to have new, stable institutions so that it can begin a new cycle in its history."

Theme (s): Governance,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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