By Catarina Demony
LUANDA (Reuters) - Angolans head to the polls next week in what is likely to be a tense standoff between a ruling party in power for nearly five decades and an opposition with growing appeal to a frustrated, impoverished youth.
The MPLA, led by João Lourenço since 2017, has governed Africa's second-biggest oil producer since independence from Portugal in 1975. But longtime opposition party UNITA is stronger than ever, as anger grows at government failures to convert vast oil wealth into better living conditions for all.
Angola, one of the world's most unequal nations, will on Aug. 24 elect a new president and lawmakers in its fifth multi-party election since the first in 1992.
Half of Angolans live in poverty and more than half of those under 25 are unemployed, facts which UNITA hopes to capitalise on in promising a change of regime. Half of voters are under 35.
An Afrobarometer survey in May showed Angolans favouring UNITA, led by the charismatic Adalberto Costa Júnior, had increased to 22% from 13% in 2019, still seven points behind the MPLA. Nearly half of voters were undecided.
"Without a doubt, this election is the tensest since 1992," said Oxford University researcher Ricardo Soares de Oliveira. "There's a huge amount of volatility and unpredictability - and the party in power has a lot of fear."
Handpicked by his predecessor José Eduardo dos Santos when he stepped down in 2017 after ruling Angola for 38 years, Lourenço pledged to fight corruption and boost the economy at a time of crisis due to the 2014 oil price crash.
He investigated corruption during the dos Santos era, targeting the former leader's children in seeking to recover billions of dollars of siphoned-off revenue, a moved aimed at trying to "gain some popular legitimacy," said Justin Pearce, senior lecturer in history at South Africa's Stellenbosch University.
Lourenço also signed a deal with the IMF and improved ties with the West to reposition Angola as a trustworthy investment destination, but was confronted with COVID-19 and a fall in oil prices, then the impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"Issues that affect people very directly ... haven't been solved," Jon Schubert, an anthropology professor at the University of Basel. "The cost of living is very high and salaries are worth a third of what they were six years ago."
Angola emerged from a 27-year civil war between the MPLA and UNITA in 2002, but Soares de Oliveira said the youth had little concern for this history, and worried more about economic ills.
That raises the risk of violent protest, if they feel their voices were not heard. A report by the Institute for Security Studies said that if an MPLA win is perceived as fraudulent, unrest could follow.
(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Additional reporting by Rachel Savage in London; Editing by Tim Cocks and David Holmes)