Angola’s peculiar electoral system needs reforms. How it could be done

Albano Augustinho TrocoAlbano Augustinho Troco is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow under the SA/UK Bilateral Chair in Political Theory. He holds a PhD in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand. His research interests encompass issues on electoral politics, democratization and autocratization studies, secessionist conflicts and international relations.



Angola has a unique electoral system. Its main peculiarity is that it involves voters electing the president, deputy president and members of parliament simultaneously with a single mark on a single ballot paper.

This has a negative impact on the quality of the country’s representative democracy. It prevents voters from voting differently for the president and members of parliament. And it reduces the ability of voters to hold elected representatives to account besides keeping them in office, or voting them out every five years.

Hence, the need for reform.

An alternative electoral system would have the following components. It should provide for the direct election of the president. And it should allow for the representation of Angolan communities abroad. In addition, seats in the legislature should be allocated through direct election of representatives from constituencies combined with compensatory seats for political parties in proportion to their overall outcome.

How does the system work?

Angola uses a closed-list proportional representation electoral system. Voters cast ballots for lists of candidates drawn up by political parties. Parties are then allocated seats in the legislature in proportion to the share of votes that they receive at the polls.

This electoral system is used widely elsewhere. Examples include South Africa and Portugal.

The specific variant used in Angola is outlined in the country’s current constitution. It was approved in 2010 to replace the interim constitution, which had been in effect since 1992.

The constitution states that the individual occupying the top position on the list of the political party or coalition of parties that receives the majority vote is appointed president. The individual next on the same list becomes the deputy president.

The 220-member National Assembly is elected on a two-level constituency: 130 candidates from a single national constituency and 90 candidates from 18 provincial constituencies (five per province). The national assembly is unicameral.

Advantages and weaknesses

There are several advantages to the closed-list proportional representation system.

One is its simplicity. The design of ballot papers allows even illiterate voters to make effective choices. It is also fair in that political parties get seats according to the proportion of votes that they receive at the polls.

It also promotes inclusiveness. It ensures that political, gender, ethnic and other minorities are not excluded from the legislature.

But, as a political scientist and a student of Angolan politics, I am of the view that the current system undermines voters’ ability to elect political representatives effectively.

Firstly, fusing executive and legislative elections prevents voters from splitting their votes for the presidency and parliament. This forces them to choose a president and a deputy president from the party with the majority in the national assembly.

Secondly, the electoral system prevents voters from electing the president directly. Yet Angola has a presidential system of government with an all-powerful presidency that exercises executive powers without effective checks and balances.

Here Angola deviates from the norm. In countries that adopt presidential systems of government, the executive does not get its legitimacy from the legislature. That is why it is elected directly by the voters.

Thirdly, voters cast ballots for party lists rather than individual candidates. This arrangement privileges political parties rather than individuals in the political process. This means that, once elected, representatives are not personally accountable to the electorate because they aren’t directly linked to any territorial constituency. Rather they are beholden to party leaders who hold the power to compile the party list.

This results in a massive accountability deficit in the political system.

In addition, the use of party lists bars independent candidates from standing for political office unless they are included in a party list that has been cleared to run in the elections. But giving effect to this is extremely difficult. Realpolitik prevents parties from choosing independent candidates at the expense of party members in good standing.

There is also the practical use of the two-level constituency – provincial and national – instead of a single national constituency.

The adoption of the 18 provincial constituencies, which goes back to 1992, is premised on the idea that all provinces need to be represented at the national assembly. But this does not make sense, as Angola is a unitary state, with a unicameral parliament.

Among Lusophone countries, which inherited this system from Portugal, Angola is the only country that introduced the national and provincial level constituency system.

There are no provincial legislatures and no functional or formal distinction between parliamentarians elected at the provincial level and those elected at the national level. They all represent the whole nation, and should all be be elected from a single national constituency.

An alternative system

The broad literature on electoral systems acknowledges that there is no single best electoral system.

There are several types of electoral systems and each has advantages as well as disadvantages.

A system that best serves democracy in one country might not work in another country. Hence, the best electoral system for a country must be informed by its particular history, social cleavages and political realities.

In the case of Angola, this means breaking with the past to end the persistence of adverse practices. These include the unchecked executive power, concentration of state resources in the hands of a small politically connected elite, widespread corruption, a culture of impunity in which those in authority get away without being punished, and a government that is not responsive to the needs of the population.

In my view, the best way to address these issues is reforming the current system. This would require a return to the direct election of the president by voters and the reinstatement of a constituency for the representation of Angolan communities abroad. This was stipulated in the Constitutional Law of the Republic of Angola, an interim document revoked in 2010.

In addition, the 18 provincial-level constituencies should be scrapped. There is no practical reason for their existence. A constituency element should be added to ensure the direct election of deputies and compensatory seats introduced for the representation of political parties in proportion to their share of the votes.

The resulting mixed electoral system would promote accountability through the direct election of representatives from constituencies. It would also ensure the proportional representation of political parties.


This article was first published by The Conversation on July 5, 2021.

Why COVID-19 can’t be blamed for Angola’s failure to have local governance

Albano Augustinho TrocoAlbano Augustinho Troco is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow under the SA/UK Bilateral Chair in Political Theory. He holds a PhD in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand. His research interests encompass issues on electoral politics, democratization and autocratization studies, secessionist conflicts and international relations.


Joao Lourenco, president of Angola. His promise to hold municipal elections this year has come to naught. Chesenot/Getty Images

Angola is the only southern African nation that has not introduced a system of elected local government. This, 45 years after it made constitutional provisions for the establishment of this important tier of government.

In 2018, President João Lourenço recommended that local elections be held in 2020. This will no longer be the case. The government blames the COVID-19 health crisis for the failure. But the truth shows otherwise.

Even without the pandemic, local government elections would not have happened this year because Angola’s National Assembly has not approved the necessary legal framework. The framework, which was expected by mid-August this year, would have supported the gradual implementation of local government functions.

This, in my view, is part of a deliberate delaying strategy by the ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), to maintain a system where the central government appoints all officials at sub-national levels. The introduction of local elections would see the ruling party lose its monopoly over local government for the first time since independence.

Angola’s system of governance

Angola has four levels of government – national, provincial, municipal and district (comuna). The last three enjoy little policy, budgetary or fiscal autonomy because of a rigid top-down relationship with the national government based in Luanda.

Central government effectively appoints all senior officials at the three lower levels. The president appoints the 18 provincial governors. They in turn appoint the 164 municipal administrators, who then appoint the 475 administrators of the districts.

Because officials at sub-national level are not elected by the people, they are politically and institutionally accountable to their hierarchical superiors, and, ultimately, to the president. Hence, sub-national government in Angola has always been remote from the people.

This governance system makes Angola one of the most politically and administratively centralised states in Africa. This heightens the zero-sum nature of national politics in Angola.

The party that wins the general elections gets to fill all executive offices with its own political appointees. These often also assume the chairmanship of the ruling party in their jurisdiction.

As a result, political parties that lose national elections can’t participate in local government. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, which has been in power for decades, is the main beneficiary of this system. This practice will change once local elections are established.

Constitutional journey

Angola’s first post-colonial constitution referred to the concept of elected local government with administrative and fiscal autonomy. This constitution was enacted in 1975, the same year the country gained independence from Portugal.

Seventeen years later, a constitutional revision law postulated that state organisation at the local level should comprise two structures: elected local representative bodies (autarquias locais) and decentralised local units of the central government (órgãos administrativos locais).

The latest constitution of 2010 reaffirms the commitment to these principles. But it declares that the effective institutionalisation of local authorities will happen gradually.

A wide range of factors has hampered the implementation of these constitutional provisions. They include:

  • the 27 years of civil war between the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola and Jonas Savimbi’s party, Unita (1975- 2002);
  • the establishment of single-party rule by the ruling party along Marxist-Leninist lines, giving rise to a highly centralised and securitised state;
  • the institution of administrative de-concentration reforms. This means that the central government has the ability to transfer some of its responsibilities to local government units, without necessarily allowing for the establishment of elected representative bodies;
  • the introduction of the principle of gradualism in establishing a system of elected local representatives.
  • the use of delaying tactics to maintain the status quo.

Empty promises

The introduction of local elections would see the ruling party lose its monopoly over local government for the first time since independence. Thus, from a cost-benefit perspective, it can be argued that the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola does not have the incentive to implement locally elected government.

The party has delayed the implementation of a system of elected local representatives until the “conditions are right”. This would enable it to decentralise power without actually losing it.

For instance, in 2008, the Minister of Territorial Administration stated that local government elections would take place in 2011 after the constitutional changes of 2010. This never happened.

Similarly, in 2011 the ministry said that the country’s first local elections would be held by 2014, following a general election in 2012, and a population census in 2014. This too did not happen.

In 2016, the deputy president, Manuel Vicente, said local elections would possibly take place in 2021. Two years later President João Lourenço recommended that local elections be held in 2020. This came after consultations with the Council of the Republic (a constitutionally sanctioned body that advises the president on a wide range of issues).

The government announced that the local elections would start in selected municipalities, and spread to all municipalities by 2035. Opposition parties objected, and called for the simultaneous implementation of elected local government in all municipalities.

In August 2020, Parliament went into recess without completing the approval of the legal framework for the elections. The hope is that local elections will be held before the next general elections scheduled for 2022.

What next?

Angola has been in a severe economic crisis since 2014. The crunch is the combined result of a sudden decline in oil prices in international markets, a drop in domestic oil production, poor financial mismanagement, and massive corruption.

Consequently, the local currency has been devalued. This has raised public debt levels and external debt servicing costs. Meanwhile, foreign currency reserves continue to drop. This predicament could be used by the government to claim there is no money to hold local elections, further postponing the necessary development of local democracy.

For years, the ruling party has deployed delaying tactics to ensure that the central government appoints all officials at sub-national levels. The economy and current COVID-19 pandemic are simply the latest in a long series of excuses.


This article was first published by The Conversation on August 24, 2020.