AFTER 15 years of one-party rule, this oil-rich former Portuguese colony faces a long and hard road to a multiparty democracy, a goal now agreed upon by the ruling Marxist government and its rebel opponents in the long and bitter civil war. ``A multiparty system is not the African method of conducting politics,'' says Methodist Bishop Emilio Miguel de Carvalho. ``This particular type of democracy is still to be tested in Africa.''
The outspoken bishop, a committed advocate of peace, reflects a broad skepticism here about the desirability of multiparty rule.
In official circles, there is concern that the ruling party could be defeated by the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) - United States-backed rebels, who have fought a relentless war against the ruling Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA) since independence in 1975.
The MPLA has remained in power with the help of about 50,000 Cuban mercenaries who began arriving in late 1975 to repel an offensive by US-backed forces from the north and a South African invasion from the south.
Under terms of an international accord leading to Namibian independence in March this year, the Cubans, who number about 12,000, must finish their withdrawal by the end of next June.
``The MPLA has repelled the military threat from UNITA and South Africa and in doing so has developed the most formidable Army in black Africa,'' says a Western diplomat. ``But it is far more uncertain about whether it can survive the political onslaught.''
The third congress of the MPLA decided three weeks ago to endorse a multiparty system and a negotiated end to the civil war with UNITA.
President Jos'e Eduardo dos Santos drew enthusiastic applause from the public at a party festival Dec. 10 when he announced that the party and the state were to be separated and the tight party control of the military would be relinquished.
But Mr. dos Santos postponed carrying out these decisions until a special party congress scheduled for April or May.
``The crunch has yet to come,'' says a Western diplomat. ``There are strong vested military interests which Dos Santos might not find so easy to shift.''
Political analysts estimate that nearly half of the 700 delegates at the party's third congress were from the military.
Working in Dos Santos's favor was the dropping of Defense Minister Pedro Maria Tonha from the Politburo.
Elections for the 90-strong Central Committee appeared to strengthen the overall position of the pro-Dos Santos reformists at the expense of hard-liners, but it was not an overwhelming trend.
A high-level round of diplomacy in Washington - involving US, Soviet, Portuguese, and Angolan officials - has brought nine months of talks in Lisbon to a head. Hopes are high in political and diplomatic circles that a cease-fire will be signed in mid-January, setting a timetable for multiparty elections.
In the past four weeks, the two adversaries have made key compromises. The MPLA has committed itself to the principle of multiparty rule and UNITA has dropped its former insistence on recognition by the government.
In Washington two weeks ago, UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi appeared to agree for the first time to the integration of UNITA and MPLA forces before elections.
A recent visit to this war-torn and drought-ravaged country revealed that multiparty democracy is a little-known concept. There were few signs that the people of Angola were being prepared for such a drastic political change.
In the provinces, party officials acknowledge the official line that multiparty democracy is on the way, but talk about it as though it was years to decades away.
But church leaders insist that there have been policy changes in recent years.
``There has been an openness from the government in recent years,'' said Bishop Miguel de Carvalho. The openness has manifested itself in greater tolerance toward the church, a broader debate in the party-controlled media, and the sanctioning of ``civic associations.''
The country's first ``nonpolitical'' organization - the Civic Association of Angola, which enjoys the broad support of the churches - has emerged as a potential political alternative.
Joaquim Pinto de Andrade, the group's leader, says most Angolans are committed neither to the MPLA nor UNITA. ``All these people are dreaming of a third voice, a third force,'' he says.
But some clerics fear a repetition of the events of 1975, when more than 20 political parties joined the scramble for power.
Some analysts believe the transition will be dominated by efforts to establish mechanisms for joint rule by the MPLA and UNITA.
``Angola's best chance might be to develop a form of power-sharing or joint rule lasting several years, during which the ground could be prepared for eventual multiparty rule,'' says a Western diplomat. ``It could even develop into a more permanent form of democracy better suited to African conditions.''