THE ruling party's 34th anniversary - and the 13th anniversary of its transformation into a Marxist-Leninist Workers' Party - was a colorful and joyous occasion for the 30,000 who took part. It was a day to celebrate the role of the party - the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and its armed wing, the Popular Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA).
A seemingly endless column of chanting faces filed past President Jos'e Eduardo dos Santos and his fellow members of the Politburo and Central Committee. School pupils, youth groups, scout troops, women's groups, trade unionists, even a Methodist Church choir filed past the podium praising the savvy Angolan leader: ``Dos Santos our friend, we are with you.''
The ceremony - peppered with imaginative and colorful floats and carnival outfits - was policed by the omnipresent soldiers of FAPLA in their camouflage outfits and heavy black boots.
It was a reminder that this southwest African nation, a Portuguese colony until 1975, is in every sense a military state. The state is the party and the armed forces are both a tool of the party and the symbol of the state's authority over the people.
Yet there was a strong sense of time-warp about the occasion, which took place late last year:
Mr. dos Santos had already begun to prepare the Angolan people for a move away from the discredited Marxist-Leninist ideology.
When he opened the MPLA's Third Congress several days earlier he warned that a tide of democracy was sweeping the world and it would by futile for Angola to row against it.
In his speech at the Dec. 10 rally, Dos Santos began to spell out the practical implications of the decision to break with the Marxist-Leninist state and opt for a multiparty system.
He explained that the Army, which has been synonymous with the party since independence, would have to disengage and become a ``national'' rather than a ``party'' force.
The MPLA's rigid control of the Army is merely a symbol of its control in every sphere of life for Angola's 10 million people. ``You have to get written permission to sneeze in this place,'' said a disillusioned middle-ranking official.
The party will have to loosen its grip on the state if a multiparty system is to take root in Angola.
It is a country of harsh contrasts and paradoxes: As some 800,000 people are at risk of immediate starvation, the Soviets are building a $40 million memorial to former President Agostinho Neto.
The changes that Dos Santos has pledged have brought the country close to a peace settlement with the rebels of Jonas Savimbi's US-backed National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
The risks of a political settlement are enormous for the MPLA, which seized power in 1975 and declared an independent state.
Fifteen years later, Angola's oil-based economy lies in ruins and the population is tired of war.
Some MPLA officials admit that they could lose an open election.
The sixth round of peace talks was held in Lisbon, Portugal, on Feb. 6 and 7 amid high expectations that a cease-fire would be agreed upon.
The adversaries came to the meeting having agreed to initial a cease-fire document negotiated by Portugal, the chief mediator; the Soviets; and the United States.
Instead, the talks collapsed when UNITA refused to tie itself to a cease-fire date unless the MPLA agreed to an election date.
The two sides cannot reach agreement on the time span between a cease-fire and elections. UNITA wants no more than a year, and the MPLA is insisting on two to three years.
At a party congress in southern Angola which ended March 17, UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi said he wanted a cease-fire by April. The conference, which Savimbi hoped would be UNITA's last meeting at its bush headquarters, reaffirmed the movement's negotiating position and prepared the ground for peace. The theme of the congress was the transformation of UNITA from one of Africa's most formidable guerrilla organizations into a political party before multi-party elections.
The draft cease-fire provides for international observers to guarantee the truce, cessation of outside military assistance to both sides, the creation of a single army, and multiparty elections.
Western diplomats are beginning to lose patience. If the seventh round of talks fails to produce an accord on a cease-fire, the peace process could go back to the drawing board.
``If we don't achieve a significant step forward at the next talks, we will need to review the whole process,'' said a Western diplomat close to the talks.
Western mediators are not sure about the Soviet role since the resignation of former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in December last year.
Dos Santos deftly avoided a split at the Third Congress in December by convincing both ideological hard-liners and reformists that they should stay.
At the same time, he promoted pragmatists to the 90-strong Central Committee - after losing a bid to enlarge it - and to the 21-person Politburo.
But the really tough part for Dos Santos comes when he has to separate the party from the Army.
The military is still well represented on both the Central Committee and the Politburo and accounts for about half the 600 Congress delegates.