No Independent Oversight, Media Bias
September 16, 2008
With presidential elections due in 2009, Angola needs to reform the electoral commission so it isn’t dominated by the ruling party and can respond effectively to election problems.
Georgette Gagnon, Africa director

(New York, September 15, 2008) - Angola's parliamentary elections on September 5, 2008, reportedly won by the ruling MPLA party, were marred by numerous irregularities, Human Rights Watch said today. Preliminary results indicate that the MPLA won more than 80 percent of the vote, the first held in Angola since 1992.

Key problems identified by Human Rights Watch include obstruction by the National Electoral Commission (CNE) of accreditation for national electoral observers, its failure to respond to media bias in favor of the ruling party, and severe delays by the Angolan government in providing funds to opposition parties. The evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch on these three key issues - observers, media bias, and state funding - suggests the polls did not meet the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections in key areas.

"With presidential elections due in 2009, Angola needs to reform the electoral commission so it isn't dominated by the ruling party and can respond effectively to election problems," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "If the electoral commission isn't reformed, there's a risk that Angolans and international partners could lose confidence in the country's fledgling democratic process."

Human Rights Watch and international election observers found that voting day and the immediate pre-election period were largely peaceful, and all political parties affirmed having effective police protection for their rallies once the campaign was under way. In Cabinda, however - the oil-rich province where a separatist movement remains active - international observers told Human Rights Watch that the fragile security situation had prevented them from extending their mission to all parts of the province. There were also some violent incidents in former strongholds of the main opposition party, UNITA, in the rural areas of Huambo and Benguela.

"Providing adequate security for political parties is just one of the criteria for free, fair, and transparent elections," said Gagnon. "Freedom of expression, equal access to the media, transparent funding of political parties, and independent oversight are just as critical."

National observers denied accreditation

Human Rights Watch found that there was official obstruction of the accreditation of national electoral observers. The Civil Society Electoral Platform, a coalition of civil society organizations, had trained 2,640 observers across the country, but only 1,300 received accreditation. In Luanda, only 28 observers from the Electoral Platform, was allowed to operate  although the it had requested accreditation for 370. The decision to accredit so few was announced on state television only 12 hours before polls opened. Such national observers would know the local context better than the international observers who arrived shortly before voting day.

By contrast, several government-sponsored civil society associations received their accreditations without major problems. With the exception of the Angolan Bar Association, none of these associations has voiced any criticism of the conduct of the elections in their statements since polling day.

According to Angola's electoral observation law and regulations, the accreditation process should have been conducted by the Provincial Electoral Commissions. However, in Luanda it was transferred at the last minute to the national commission, and then to a previously unknown structure, the Observation Office (Gabinete de Observação) linked to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. State media reported on the eve of elections the majority of the platform's requests for accreditations had been refused because 95 percent of the documentation presented with the applications was "forged."

The platform denied this accusation and said in a statement on election day: "The Electoral Platform is deeply concerned that the CNE deliberately limited the number of independent observers in Luanda, which is home to about one third of all Angolan voters, obstructing impartial and independent verification, and undermining confidence in the process."

An official of the Electoral Platform told Human Rights Watch: "There are indications of political interference during the last week before the polls. The CNE lost administrative, logistical, legal, and political control of the electoral process. These failures undermined the CNE's credibility." Human Rights Watch previously raised concerns about the fact that eight of 11 CNE members are effectively appointed by the MPLA.

"Irregularities in the accreditation process raise serious concerns about whether the government willfully obstructed independent observation of the elections in Luanda," Gagnon said.

Voting day chaos

Polling stations in Luanda had massive problems with the late delivery of ballot papers which forced the CNE to extend the vote an extra day. The CNE admitted that  320 polling stations in Luanda has failed to open on September 5 because they had no ballot papers. The observers of the European Union said that only 22 of these opened the next day, contrary to the CNE's announcements.  This caused further confusion and prevented large numbers of people from voting. The EU observers noted that "adherence to procedures did not improve."

An observer from the Angolan Bar Association told Human Rights Watch: "The question is whether the disorganization evidenced in Luanda - and to a lesser degree in other parts of the country - was the result of circumstances beyond control, or of negligence, or was intentional."

So far, it has not been possible to determine how many people were prevented from voting. One of the many voters who sent a text message to Rádio Ecclésia on September 5 reported "total disorganization here in (the Luanda neighborhood) Golfe II. The polling stations have not had ballot papers since midday."

Observers from the EU and the Pan-African Parliament also noted that voters' rolls were not always available at all polling stations, and when they were available, were not used by electoral officials to check against voters' names as required by the electoral law. This compromised one of the legally required safeguards against people voting more than once.

"The government should set up a genuinely independent inquiry, to investigate why ballot papers weren't available, how many people were prevented from voting and why voter's rolls were not available on polling day," Gagnon said. "The real obstacles facing voters in Luanda highlights the problems of having an elections oversight body dominated by the ruling party."

Delayed state funding and misuse of state resources

Under Angola's Electoral Law, all political parties eligible to run candidates should have received state funds for their election campaign up to 90 days before voting day. In fact, parties received their funding only after the official campaign had started on August 5. An opposition activist in Huila province told Human Rights Watch: "The money has been our most serious problem. We're managing, but that's thanks to the enthusiasm of our supporters."

In contrast, the MPLA appeared to have limitless funding at its disposal. Human Rights Watch witnessed state television news regularly showing MPLA events where items such as motorcycles, televisions, and refrigerators were presented as gifts to village chiefs, and agricultural implements and bags of grain were given to villagers. Human Rights Watch saw the MPLA flag flying from trucks that were distributing water - an expensive commodity in Angola - and sacks of grain. In Cabinda, local journalists told Human Rights Watch that the provincial government distributed cars to those trade union leaders who were known to be MPLA supporters, and the MPLA offered money to churches in return for hosting campaign events.

At the same time, government-sponsored events were used for party political purposes. When Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos - who is head of the ruling party as well as head of state - visited several provincial capitals during the campaign to inaugurate urban development projects, the events were turned into MPLA party rallies. Opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations criticized MLPA misuse of resources to fund their campaign, but the CNE did not respond to these criticisms.

"State funding of political parties should have brought a more level playing field, but delays meant serious difficulties for the opposition," Gagnon said. "The government should take steps to ensure state money due to parties is paid out in good time before the 2009 elections."

Ruling party grip on the state media

The Electoral Law provision that each party be allocated an equal amount of time immediately before the news bulletins on state radio and television to promote its campaign was respected and the state media did cover the campaigns of all parties. However, Human Rights Watch and other observers noted a disproportionate amount of air time devoted to the MPLA campaign during the news bulletins themselves. For example, on several occasions state television praised the government for rebuilding the country's infrastructure destroyed by the leading opposition party, UNITA, during the country's 26-year civil war.

On September 3, the last day of the election campaign, the state-owned Angolan Public Television broadcast footage of a woman weeping as she recalled how she had suffered due to UNITA during the war.  She also accused the current UNITA leader Isaias Samakuva of lying when he said UNITA had changed since the war ended. This item bore no evident relationship with current news, and appeared to have been broadcast expressly to discredit UNITA.

As one state television journalist said to Human Rights Watch: "The MPLA in fact assaulted the state media. This has nothing to do with media work anymore."

"The allocation of equal airtime to every party was rendered largely irrelevant by the clear bias in favor of the ruling party in the news broadcasts on state radio and television," Gagnon said. "However, The CNE did not intervene to stop the preferential treatment that the state media gave to the MPLA."

Political violence and intimidation

Human Rights Watch documented the climate of intimidation in the months before the election campaign began. During the campaign, police efforts to offer improved security to opposition parties and the presence of international observers helped to reduce the number of violent incidents. Human Rights Watch is nevertheless concerned about incidents that occurred less than three weeks before the election.

A UNITA party official told Human Rights Watch that a group of men used sticks and stones to attack party members during a UNITA public meeting in Kipeio (Ekunha municipality) in Huambo province on August 13. One woman had to be hospitalized, and others sustained less serious injuries. Credible sources told Human Rights Watch that the attackers had vowed: "If UNITA comes back, we'll do this again."

UNITA officials told Human Rights Watch that, despite the fact that the police intervened promptly, to date, neither the police nor prosecutors have taken action to bring the perpetrators to justice.

In Benguela province, UNITA representatives said their members were stoned by youth on August 23. In the village Chico da Waiti (Macambombolo commune, Balombo municipality), a large group of youth threw stones at a delegation of 40 UNITA members, including two members of parliament and the provincial vice-governor, injuring eight people and damaging cars. Police was escorting the delegation and removed tree trunks which had been placed across the road to block their arrival.

The provincial police commander explained to a local journalist that the police did not arrest anybody because "it was difficult to identify the perpetrators in a riot." Interviewed by the journalist five days after the incident, the communal administrator of Macambombolo said: "There is no political intolerance here; the people are just against UNITA... I guarantee the security of election observers from UNITA, but not for UNITA's election campaign." The journalist told Human Rights Watch he felt intimidated due to close surveillance by state security agents during his research.

"The Angolan government s should investigate all violent incidents related to the campaign and bring those responsible to justice," Gagnon said. "Ensuring there is no impunity for such attacks is essential for a fairer poll in next year's presidential election."