LUANDA – Angolans voted in a parliamentary election on Wednesday expected to usher in the ruling party’s defense minister as the first new leader for 38 years.
Joao Lourenco, who has pledged to boost growth and fight corruption, would inherit an economy mired in recession as gaping inequality, soaring inflation and high unemployment squeeze poor Angolans who have benefited little from a decades-long oil boom.
Polls closed at 6 p.m. (1700 GMT) on Wednesday, but in some remote areas where voting started late, polling station were allowed to stay open a little longer.
An unofficial result is expected by Friday. But there may be no formal announcement for two weeks as ballot boxes wend their way along pot-holed roads and dirt tracks in a country of 28 million spread across an area twice the size of France.
The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which has ruled Angola since independence from Portugal in 1975, is expected to remain in power but with a reduced majority.
Its support has waned due to political cronyism, though many Angolans remain loyal to the party that emerged victorious from 27 years of civil war in 2002.
“I’ve been following the party all my life. I grew up with it,” 33-year-old bakery owner Telma Francisco told Reuters outside a polling station in the capital.
“The other parties don’t have the capacity to govern.”
Lourenco, a quiet 63-year-old more used to army barracks and the closed doors of party politics than the public spotlight, voted at the Luanda state university, stopping only to praise a smooth electoral process.
Questions have been raised as to how much power he will have if he wins, given veteran leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos, 74, will continue as head of the MPLA and have potentially a sweeping say over decision-making.
His daughter, Isabel, heads national oil producer Sonangol and his son, José Filomeno, is in charge of the $5 billion state investment fund.
“Even if he wanted to, Lourenco may find it difficult to free himself from the control of dos Santos,” said Julia Westbury, Africa analyst at West Sands Advisory.
“Large-scale political change is unlikely, and the long awaited democratic reforms needed to turn Angola’s struggling economy around are unlikely to materialise.”
Lourenco has dismissed suggestions he would be a puppet president, saying he would focus on leading an “economic miracle”, possibly with the help of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and would prosecute corrupt politicians.
The MPLA’s main opponent is its former civil war foe, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), while young voters have been lured by CASA-CE, which was formed in 2012 on a promise to disrupt 50 years of two-party politics.
“Today is a day of festivities, happiness, peace and of responsibility and I trust in the Angolan people that we have the conditions to bring change,” CASA-CE presidential candidate Abel Chivukuvuku said prior to casting his vote.
Angola has been largely peaceful since the end of a Cold War-era conflict between the MPLA, backed by the Soviet Union, and UNITA, supported by the United States and South Africa.
More than two-thirds of Angolans are below 25 so many people will be voting for the first time.
“We’re voting for change,” said 19-year old Joao Costa, who like most people who oppose the authoritative MPLA declined to say who he voted for.
There have been concerns about how fair the vote can be after the government cracked down on recently planned demonstrations. UNITA has said it will lead protests if it believes the MPLA has manipulated results.
Angola’s electoral commission said the vote went smoothly.
“It’s an example of how democratic elections should be carried out in any part of the world,” its head, Andre da Silva Neto, told reporters, adding that some hard-to-reach polling stations had opened late and some delegates from political parties had been denied initial entry to observe the vote.
Dos Santos, Africa’s longest-ruling president behind Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, steps down after guiding the OPEC-member from Marxism to capitalism while embracing Chinese oil-for-infrastructure investment.
Loyalty to his party runs deep for many voters.
“The opposition is a joke,” said out-of-work decorator Francisco, 32, declining to give his surname.
“The MPLA is the only party that can change things and with a new candidate for president I think he can do a better job”
Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Robin Pomeroy