Angolan voters flock to polls

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The Independent Online
A YOUNG woman raced across a thatched hut to restrain a queue of people struggling to enter a small side-room and shouted: 'You can't look, this is a secret ballot.' Outside, in the village of Mavinga, thousands more Angolans queued silently in the hot sun to do what they had never done before: cast a ballot in a general election.

If the huge queues in Mavinga, scene of one of the last great battles of Angola's 16-year civil war, are anything to go by, the turn-out among the 4.8 million registered voters in legislative and presidential elections, which end today, will be heavy. Reports from the capital, Luanda, 650 miles north- west of Mavinga, and other large cities confirmed the trend.

There were several cases of attempted cheating, but the first day of the election appeared to go off with remarkable calm for a nation that 16 months ago was the theatre of Africa's most bitter war.

Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) and the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), led by President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, are the main contestants in the 18-party election.

At stake are the presidency and 223 parliamentary seats in the 'Second Republic of Angola', which has been put together with the support of the United Nations to replace an intractable civil conflict with a multi-party democracy.

Mavinga, 120 miles from Unita's headquarters at Jamba, was the graveyard of thousands of government soldiers in two big thrusts by the MPLA to eliminate Mr Savimbi's guerrilla army, which was backed by Pretoria and Washington. Both the government offensives failed. The town, consisting of 20 ruined and bullet- ridden buildings, has been abandoned since Unita occupied the area in the early 1980s and moved people to a new village.

At the airstrip 12 miles from Mavinga, UN helicopters and planes were flying election materials and workers to rural areas in this remote province of Cuando Cubango. The UN team, headed by Margaret Anstee, a Briton, has mounted a huge effort to assist in the elections.

Nevertheless, the 800 election observers whom the UN placed all around the country to monitor nearly 6,000 voting booths were clearly not enough. There were just two UN observers to watch over the 84 polling stations in the Mavinga municipality.

Though the elections seemed peaceful on the first day of polling, many observers fear there is trouble ahead when the first incomplete results are announced, probably in the next two days.