UPDATE 2-Angolan president seen stronger in new constitution

Thu Jan 21, 2010 5:31am EST

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* New charter increases president's powers

* Changes will trigger formation of new government

(Adds quotes, details throughout)

By Henrique Almeida

LUANDA, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Angola's parliament approved a new constitution on Thursday that will allow President Jose Eduardo dos Santos to extend his three-decade long rule over one of Africa's top oil producers without a direct ballot.

The constitution was approved by 186 out of a total 220 votes in parliament, in which the ruling party holds an overwhelming majority over a weak and divided opposition. The main opposition UNITA party boycotted the vote.

"This is a historic moment," said Fernando da Piedade Dias dos Santos, president of Angola's parliament. "Parliament has just adopted the new constitution of the Republic of Angola."

The constitution needs to be approved by the country's Constitutional Court and the president before coming into effect.

PRESIDENTIAL POWERS

The new charter will keep the president as head of government and the armed forces. It replaces the prime minister with a vice president, ensuring the president will be more involved in day-to-day affairs of state.

The president will be chosen as the leader of the party which wins the biggest share of the vote for parliament. Under the previous constitution the president and parliament were elected via two separate elections.

Analysts say this constitution grants even more power to Africa's second longest serving ruler.

"The ruling MPLA says the constitution will increase democracy, but by abolishing the presidential ballot and concentrating all the power on the president it will do exactly the opposite," said Fernando Macedo, a political analyst in Luanda.

NO RIVALS

Dos Santos, aged 67 and in power since 1979, faces no strong political rivals, but political analysts say that by removing the need for a direct ballot he will avoid the possibility of winning a smaller share of votes than the ruling party.

The ruling MPLA, whose red and black flag resembles that of the Angolan national flag, took 82 percent of the vote in 2008

He has previously said that as soon as the new constitution is passed he will form a smaller government with fewer opportunities for graft. Angola is the world's 18 most corrupt countries, according to watchdog Transparency International.

The anti-corruption move should be welcomed by investors in a country where an estimated two-thirds of its 16.5 million people live on less than $2 a day despite Angola vying with Nigeria as Africa's top oil producer. It is also a big diamond miner.

Human rights groups said billions of dollars in oil revenues have simply disappeared and remain unaccounted for.

Dos Santos' family and inner circle hold huge sway over Angolan business and some are among the richest people on the continent.

Some analysts believe the Jan. 8 deadly attack by separatists on the Togo soccer team in Cabinda, before the start of the Africa Cup of Nations, may have brought the vote forward from March. (Editing by Matthew Jones)

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