Fierce contest in Angola vote

2012-08-30 10:24

Huambo - Once the stronghold of the feared Unita rebels, Angola's second city Huambo has emerged as a key battlefield in Friday's general elections as the party struggles in politics to regain its territory.

"This year the battle is going to be competitive. The ruling party is no longer certain of easy victory, and its historic rival needs to prove that it can still mobilise" its supporters, said Alicerces Mango, a local official with the new Casa opposition party.

Huambo resonates with symbolism from the 27-year civil war. As the stronghold of the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), the city of 400 000 people suffered some of the war's most crushing battles.

The southern city infamously lived under siege for 50 days. After the war, Huambo was left devastated.

It finally fell to President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and the ruling MPLA in 2008 elections, when the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola won the province's five seats in parliament.

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That victory more than anything exposed the frailty of Unita as an opposition party, without its notorious leader Jonas Savimbi who was killed by the army in 2002. Unita took only 10% of the ballots in 2008.

"Today we are better organised," said Liberty Chiyaka, Unita's provincial secretary. "We have visited all the villages to explain that their vote is secret. We will have two party representatives at each polling station, and will do our own compilation of the results."

"Unlike in 2008, we can monitor the vote, and we will do everything to minimise the impact of fraud," he said.

Unita has used its campaign to underscore worries about the election, from the integrity of the voter roll to the MPLA's use of public resources - especially the broadcast media - in its campaign.

The party faces other challenges from within. Top Unita leader Abel Chivukuvuku split away in April to form the new Casa party with a top MPLA figure and a clutch of smaller opposition parties.

Born not far from the city, Chivukuvuku could also pull votes from Unita.

Faced with an energetic if small opposition, Dos Santos came to Huambo to lead a rally and to inaugurate the Gove dam, a $279m project that will bring electricity to Huambo province and neighbouring Bie.

Fierce campaigning sometimes sparked clashes between MPLA and Unita supporters, despite repeated calls for peace from both parties.

"The population is still traumatised by the resumption of fighting after the 1992 elections. In the countryside, for many people, voting is still synonymous with war," said Jose Maria Katiavala, a sociologist and local official in a rural development programme.

"This electorate, rural and with little education, was won over by MPLA when the opposition was busy wooing the urban vote, which is young and skilled. Political consciousness is starting to develop but remains small across the country," he said.

"I'm going to vote for Casa because the country needs change," said Tiago Jay Chimico, 22, outside the party's local headquarters. Support for the new party is one more sign of how far removed the young generation is from the famous two combatants in the civil war.

More than half of Angolans are under 18, and the youth vote is hugely important. But how they will vote, and how the broader public will respond to pressing social concerns like jobs, water and housing are the great unknowns in this election.

"Despite the government's efforts, there's a lot of public frustration with unemployment and the lack of opportunity for the youth," said Huambo Archbishop Dom Jose Queiros Alves.