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Angola president set to give final nod to landmark polls

LUANDA, June 2 – President Jose Eduardo dos Santos should give final approval this week to Angola’s first legislative polls since a 27-year civil war, widely seen as a litmus test for his own re-election prospects.

Dos Santos has summoned the cross-party Council of the Republic to meet on Tuesday for a last update on preparations for the ballot due on September 5 and 6, the date for which must be confirmed no less than 90 days before polling.

The 65-year-old, Africa’s third longest-serving leader, has yet to say if he will bid to extend his mandate in a presidential election scheduled for 2009 but commentators say the outcome of September’s poll is key to his decision.

"Dos Santos set the legislative and presidential elections to be held separately. He wants to test the waters before he decides if he can go ahead," said the editor of news magazine Semanario Angolense, Severino Carlos.

Political analyst Justino Pinto de Andrade of Luanda’s Catholic University, says all evidence points to dos Santos, who has ruled since 1979, wanting to run again with his image at the centre of the campaigning by his Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party.

"You see that all ruling party activities are centred around him. And you don’t see the emergence of another personality in the MPLA," he told AFP.

After recent post-election violence in Kenya and Zimbabwe, the poll for the 220-seat National Assembly will be closely watched with observers hoping the country can put its bloody past behind it.

The last national elections took place during a lull in fighting in 1992 when Jonas Savimbi, leader of the then National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebel movement, stood against dos Santos.

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After losing the first round, Savimbi refused to contest a run-off as he alleged widespread rigging and the conflict resumed.

His death in 2002 proved decisive in ending the fighting which claimed half a million lives after erupting in 1975, soon after independence from Portugal.

There was controversy last month when the MPLA-dominated parliament voted for the deadline for the announcement of election results to be extended to 15 days after the close of polling rather than 10 days as previously stipulated.

The vote triggered accusations from UNITA — now the official opposition — that dos Santos was copying the tactics of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, where results of a March 29 presidential elections were delayed by five weeks.

However, unlike Mugabe, dos Santos has allowed foreign observers to oversee the poll and a team from the European Union hopes to begin its work next month.

The MPLA will be campaigning on its record of economic growth which is now the fastest in Africa, mainly thanks to booming oil exports.

Angola became the biggest oil exporter in Africa in April, according to figures from the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, producing about 1.9 million barrels of crude a day.

But while UN figures show the economy grew 17.6 percent in 2006, surveys also indicate some two-thirds of Angolans live on less than two dollars a day.

Unemployment is estimated at 40 percent and the country remains dependent on food imports.

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At an MPLA conference in May, dos Santos laid out ambitious plans to create 1.3 million jobs as well as investments in the construction of a million affordable houses and expansion of the biofuel and agricultural industries.

Whether the party can deliver is open to conjecture, with even some in the MPLA warning that dos Santos’s programme is overly ambitious.

"We don’t have infrastructure, human and technical resources to support such a programme. This is utopia," said Fernando Macedo, a member of the ruling party and leading activist for a rural development non-government organisation.

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