Signal Risk on Angola – Changes to the charter

PUBLISHED: Tue, 13 Apr 2021 13:54:20 GMT

*This analysis was produced by the team at Signal Risk 

On 18 March, the National Assembly opened debate over a series of constitutional amendments. The Constitutional Review Proposal under parliamentary consideration contains 40 proposed modifications. It is the first revision of Angola’s legal framework since the current constitution was adopted in 2010.

Reforms and revisions

The ruling MPLA party has presented the amendments as part of the current administration’s much vaunted reform agenda, implemented after President Joao Lourenco replaced Jose Eduardo dos Santos as head of state and MPLA leader in 2017.

The bulk of the suggested constitutional modifications are, in fact, largely uncontroversial. Many proposed alterations – including changes that would cement the independence of the central bank and enhance parliamentary oversight of the executive – appear to have support within the MPLA and opposition UNITA and CASA-CE parties. Other amendments – such as those extending voting rights to Angolans in the diaspora – have long been called for by opposition parties.

An exercise in cosmetics?

Nonetheless, the constitutional review has drawn substantial criticism from opposition and civil society groups. Most notably, the opposition argues that the proposed changes to the country’s judicial framework are not extensive enough. Specifically, critics claim that the incremental legal reforms do not alter the unrivalled authority wielded by the president and the MPLA. Among the more fundamental changes called for by the opposition is a revision to the current format of general elections (in which the president is not directly elected, but appointed by the party that secures the most votes in the legislature).

A civil society group calling itself the “Youth for Municipalities Movement” expressed similarly critical sentiments about Angola’s electoral system at a Luanda press conference on 17 March. The group called on the Lourenco administration to commit to holding the frequently delayed municipal elections in 2021. The municipal ballot – which is a key pillar of the move towards decentralising political power in Angola – had been scheduled for the latter half of 2020, but was postponed in September of that year due to the domestic coronavirus outbreak. Authorities have yet to reschedule the vote, leading opposition groups to accuse the MPLA of deliberately delaying the election in order to maintain the ruling party’s dominant position at all levels of government.

Another prominent criticism levelled against the proposed constitutional alterations relates to the top-down nature of the review process. Specifically, civic organisations have been highly critical of the fact that the amendments were formulated by cabinet without a formal consultation process.

The Signal

On the whole, the constitutional amendments put forward by the Lourenco administration represent a positive development for Angola’s democratic system. The majority of the proposed edits have support across the political spectrum and are generally expected to strengthen the country’s governance structure.

However, as pointed out by UNITA, the selective and incremental nature of the suggested changes does serve a particular political logic for the MPLA. Namely, the ruling party is attempting to bolster its reformist image, while ensuring that it retains its dominant position in the executive and legislature. UNITA is expected to boycott the final vote of the constitutional review process, just as it did with the initial parliamentary vote, but the MPLA should still successfully pass the review bill into law, due to its legislative majority and the support of smaller opposition parties.

Opposition and civil society groups are likely to continue to push for broader democratic reforms. Foremost among these are municipal elections, which have not been specifically provided for in the draft constitutional reforms. The most concrete allowance made in this regard was to abandon the MPLA’s previous commitment to the principle of “gradualism”, by which preparations for municipal elections would be done incrementally over a period ending in 2035. Aside from this, no further effort has been made to provide a date on which the polls may be held or to resolve issues relating to the legal standing and administrative structure of the municipalities.

While the opposition is likely to push for the local elections to be held in the current year, the MPLA may attempt to push them further out and hold the polls alongside the general elections scheduled for 2022. Although this is likely to become a point of contention among opposition parties, it is unlikely to affect overall political stability due to the MPLA’s dominant political position.

Meanwhile, the application of Lourenco’s more extensive reform agenda is likely to be selective ahead of the 2022 national elections. Although an exact date has yet to be set, the national polls are likely to take place in August 2022. Both the ruling and opposition parties will have begun to strategise for the upcoming ballot.

Following the expected passage of the constitutional reform bill through parliament, the Lourenco administration is not expected to pursue other major reforms ahead of the vote. The government will, however, continue with existing reform efforts that it deems politically advantageous.

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