September 5, 2008 / 7:13 AM / 11 years ago

Angolans vote in first election in 16 years

(Adds details on vote, election spokesman comment, background)

By Henrique Almeida

LUANDA, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Angolans voted on Friday for the first time in 16 years in a parliamentary election expected to extend the ruling party's hold of more than three decades in the booming oil-rich African nation.

Long queues formed in the capital Luanda, considered a stronghold of the governing MPLA, hours before the polls opened at 7 a.m. (0600 GMT).

Angola wants the election to set an example after flawed ballots elsewhere in Africa and to demonstrate its recovery from decades of civil war that ended in 2002.

"This is a day of hope. Things will change because we have suffered a lot to live in peace," Esperanca da Gloria, a 65-year-old retired nurse, said while waiting to vote near the presidential palace in Luanda.

The poll is the first in Angola since 1992 and is seen largely as a race between the MPLA and former rebel group UNITA. Official results are not expected for at least a week.

UNITA says the ruling party has had an unfair advantage in the campaign and U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has backed its complaints, but European Union observers have not reported problems.

Angola's last election ended in disaster in 1992 when UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi withdrew from the second round of a presidential poll after accusing MPLA leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos of cheating his way to victory.

Savimbi then led his supporters back into the bush where the rebel group resumed a 27-year war against the government. An estimated half a million people died in the conflict, which ended after Savimbi was killed in an ambush in 2002.



HOLIDAY

The government declared Friday a national holiday to enable an estimated 8.3 million registered voters to get to the polls. There were reports of delays to voting in some districts.

"We are not going to close the polling stations until everyone has a chance to vote throughout the country," Adao de Almeida, spokesman for Angola's electoral commission, told state-controlled media.

The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which took power after independence from Portugal in 1975, is confident it will beat a fragmented and underfunded opposition.

Its supporters openly boast of the prospect that the party will boost its share of the 220 seat parliament, possibly winning the two-thirds majority that would allow it to make sweeping changes to the constitution.

The MPLA held 129 seats going into the election, with the remainder mostly controlled by UNITA. There are 12 other small opposition party contesting the election.

Despite accusations he has turned a blind eye to corruption and glaring social ills, Dos Santos -- in power since 1979 -- is banking that voters will give the government credit for presiding over the country's economic boom.

Oil production has more than doubled since the end of the war to about two million barrels per day, helping fuel double-digit economic growth. Angola's gross domestic product grew more than 24 percent in 2007.

The country is also enjoying increasing clout on the world stage as the newest member of OPEC and an emerging regional heavyweight in Africa. Angola is the biggest oil exporter to China and has won billions of dollars in Chinese investment.

UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), led by Isaias Samakuva, is pinning its hopes on discontent over the government's failure to dent widespread poverty and high unemployment.

Two-thirds of Angolans live on $2 a day and at least 40 percent of the workforce is unemployed.

UNITA complains that the MPLA received too much free publicity from state-owned media and of low-level attacks on its supporters in the campaign. The government has denied the allegations. (Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Matthew Tostevin) (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/)




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