JUST one month after Angolans peacefully thronged polling stations in their first multiparty election ever, the conflict-battered southern African country is on the brink of all-out war. Even if international condemnation persuades the rebel group UNITA to halt its present offensive, months of uncertainty could pass before a runoff is held between President Eduardo dos Santos, who won 49.6 percent of the vote, and UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi, who got 40.1 percent.
Although Mr. Savimbi was persuaded to accept the election results, which also gave the ruling MPLA a 129-to-70 margin over UNITA in the 220-seat legislature, he still claims the election was marked by massive fraud. Despite lack of support from his former patrons in the United States and South Africa, he has repeatedly threatened to take up arms again.
After the late September vote, UNITA generals withdrew from the formally merged national Army. Savimbi's threats delayed release of the vote totals for two weeks, and incidents of violence have increased ominously.
The international community, including the US, has been unanimous in urging Savimbi to accept the election results. But Savimbi and his closely knit group of top officers remain both unpredictable and militarily potent. Wartime suspicion is close to the surface, and there are abundant arms and trained men left from earlier years. The new conflict, which appears to be starting, will be hard to contain.
If that happens, it will be a tragic sequel to what was an exemplary cease-fire and election process. Coming just 16 months after the May 1991 cease-fire, the Angolan elections faced enormous practical difficulties. Roads are mined; the country's population is almost 60 percent illiterate; and there has been large-scale movement of rural people since the last census in 1970. The country still has separate armies despite the peace-accord proviso that they be demobilized and that a new national Army be cre ated.
International support of the elections was minimal, given the size of the country and level of war devastation. Only an estimated 800 international observes were present, as compared with 6,000 for the 1989 elections in Namibia, a country with less than one-fifth the population.
Nevertheless, international observers were highly impressed with the organization of the election process. The National Electoral Council, including representatives of all parties, made an extraordinary effort to demonstrate openness and impartiality.
AFTER careful study of all the specific complaints received, United Nations observers concluded that the elections were "generally free and fair," and that there was no evidence of "major, systematic or widespread fraud" or of irregularities that could have significantly influenced the result.
Nongovernmental observers agreed. The International Republican Institute, for example, congratulated the "professionalism across the 5,804 polling sites by the electoral officials and party poll watchers." The 39-member delegation of the US-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), in which I participated, reported that the elections "constituted a proper and effective application of the mechanism of elective choice of political representatives."
At polling stations, which I with three others observed in the province of Kuanza Norte and other IFES teams monitored in seven other provinces, the voting was directed by five-member teams of electoral officials, chosen for their educational qualifications without regard to party. Party poll watchers were also present in each station. The ruling MPLA and UNITA were represented at almost every station; four parties were represented on average at the 25 polling stations our team visited.
The experience of all the IFES teams, and of other international observers with whom we later compared notes, was that electoral officials and party representatives shared a commitment to the process, taking care that every step be visible to every participant.
The counting process was laborious, due in part to inexperience and to lack of electric light and of transport, but also because of insistence on transparency and consensus. At each station copies of the tallies were available for officials and for each party; everyone present had to sign each copy, providing multiple options for rechecking results.
Even UNITA supporters among US officials stationed in Luanda commented that Savimbi had only himself to blame for the loss. His belligerent campaign, in which he often appeared in uniform armed with a pistol, jarred with Angolans' desire for peace and was exploited by President dos Santos, who projected a peacemaker image.
Despite his grudging concession to the UN verdict and intermittent dialogue with international mediators, Savimbi has never abandoned his threats to resort to war to insure his leadership of Angola. If peace is to prevail, the international community - particularly UNITA's former patrons - must be ready to back up their insistence that Savimbi adhere to peaceful democratic competition. That may mean not only economic sanctions but also military assistance to help keep the peace.