Africa Notes: Angola’s Election

Reuters reported today the somewhat unsurprising challenge by Angola’s opposition party, UNITA, to the national election results of August 31st (Reuters). The ruling MPLA party, led by President dos Santos, won with 74 percent of the vote (Reuters). This was a legislative election, but the constitution–changed in 2010 under MPLA and Dos Santos direction–stipulates that the party leader should become president for a five-year term. Dos Santos has already served about 33 years.

MPLA’s advantages
The MPLA had key advantages going into the election, in terms of resources and influence over most media. It also is able to claim itself as the choice for peace and stability, given the near decade of peace that it has presided over since the end of the civil war (Reuters-Timeline-Angola). And that past decade has also been prosperous for Angola as a whole. Between 2002 and 2008, growth averaged an astonishing 17 percent per year. To further their case as the party of prosperity, the MPLA announced a platform with a main focus on combating hunger and extreme poverty.

The opposition’s case
The platform of the opposition groups have focussed on limited political and civil rights and–perhaps most directly–the growing economic inequality within Angola. UNITA and other opposition groups are quick to point out that benefits of a decade of economic growth have been unevenly realized (Reuters; Mail&Guardian). They accuse the government of mismanaging oil revenues.

In terms of the election itself, many were concerned about the lack of transparency in electoral rolls. And on the day of election there were reports of some irregularities. Perhaps even more seriously, one relatively new opposition group, CASA-CE, protested the imprisonment of its youth leaders (Global Voices). Finally, many claimed that the National Electoral Commission was biased in its attachment to the ruling MPLA party. The relatively low voter turnout of 57%, some suggest, might have to do with both the fraudulent conduct of the election and voter apathy in the midst of the inevitability of an MPLA win (Global Voices). It will be a little while before we know what types of impacts the opposition’s complaints to the National Electoral Commission will have.

My take on all of this
Many democracy advocates are upset about the conduct of the recent elections and the MPLA’s continued grip on power. And I agree that there are some legitimate grievances here. However, optimist that I am, I think there may be a few reasons to be optimistic about what happened here. First, I think that the practice of voting and participating in contested elections strengthens democracy. This was only the second election since the civil war ended and there was far more enlightened contestation in this one. Second, the MPLA and Dos Santos were forced in this election to consider and respond to the needs of those who feel left out of Angola’s rapid economic rise. I think there is a case to be made for thinking that the fledgling middle class in Angola may be starting to learn its important potential roles in Angolan democracy. Third, opposition groups also learned in this process. And while their challenges may not have much of an impact, the use of the official institutions–as frustrating as the process may be–could have an impact. Finally, there will be another window of opportunity in the next five years, whether from an early retirement by Dos Santos or through a regularly scheduled election, for both sides to take the lessons they are learning and apply them. I’m not optimistic that there will be a major shift in political power in that next election, but perhaps the one after? It take time to build a democracy.

Obama, Midterm Elections, and Foreign Policy

I am far from being an expert on American politics and elections. But I do tend to pay attention when they intersect my interests in international relations and I’ve gleaned a few tidbits from my Americanist colleagues: foreign policy preferences can impact voter attitudes (Aldrich et al. 2006); there may be “two presidencies” (domestic and foreign policy), and Presidents have greater control over foreign policy (Wildavsky 1966); and that the President’s party rarely does well in mid-term elections (see Shenkman; in 1991, James Campbell wrote about how the Presidential “surge” is pretty regularly followed by a decline)

So I find it interesting, when procrastinating looking today at the Wall Street Journal’s “POTUS Tracker”, which analyzes how Obama spends his time, that foreign policy and defense seem to be less of a relative priority over the last period as compared with the similar period a year ago (see the images below). The number of such events that engaged Obama’s attention a year ago was apparently 309 and this year for the same period, 265. This, of course, is a crude measure. But it makes me wonder whether Obama is missing an opportunity. While the economy is important, it may be that he should be doing more about foreign policy.

When it comes to his foreign policy record thus far, the reviews are not the greatest. Stephen Walt wrote recently that Obama is “0 for 4” on foreign policy. Richard Haass seems to have a more nuanced perspective but still finds major problems in Obama’s approach to Afghanistan and the Middle East.

My current view is that Obama is doing an OK job with some of this, but there is a lot of room for improvement. Citing success in Iraq–as he has done in recent days–is a good move, but it will take a lot of spinning. He could be bolder on the closing of Guantanamo. (Somehow, I think that Congress would find a way to fund the new domestic facility if he made a realistic threat to close Guantanamo “no matter what”.) Afghanistan may not be an easy sell these days, but Obama should be thinking about other foreign policy opportunities. In particular, I think he needs to find a way to make the US appear as the key leader behind a major successful international initiative. It almost doesn’t matter what it is (environment, human rights, security, trade). But there are several things that would matter here:

  1. This has to be a multilateral initiative
  2. Other states need to seem excited about cooperating with the United States
  3. There needs to be some reasonable chance of success with the initative

I think that if Obama could find this, then he would be fulfilling part of the great hope many Americans had when voting for him. He was supposed to be a game-changer, especially when it came to international affairs. We were to have a President who the international community liked and could get behind. People would like America again. I think such a positive experience with Obama could also change the way he is seen in the upcoming election, though it may already be too late for that.

Or, perhaps I’m wrong. Clinton did well when he focused on the economy. And the world seems to resemble the complicated world that Neustadt (1991) seemed to think that American Presidents would face:

“In a multipolar world, crisscrossed by transnational relations, with economic and environmental issues paramount, and issues of security reshaped on regional lines, our Presidents will less and less have reason to seek solace in foreign relations from the piled-up frustrations of home affairs. Their foreign frustrations will be piled high too.”

From the Wall Street Journal:

Democracy in West Africa

A couple stories to watch:

In Nigeria, elections in the southeastern Anambra state, were marred by allegations of fraud and claims of disenfranchisement.  The concern is what this might signal for next year’s Presidential election. Fortunately, the election itself was largely peaceful… this time.

Meanwhile, in Cote d’Ivoire, many are claiming they are being disenfranchised from upcoming presidential elections.

These are two of the most important countries in West Africa. The region as a whole could prosper were greater political stability to come to these two countries.  What happens in the 16 months in those two countries may set the political trajectory for the region for the next five to ten years.