AS Angola prepares for its first-ever democratic elections Sept. 29 and 30, the international community is pushing for a government of national unity in a bid to avert a potential outbreak of post-ballot hostilities.
A government of reconciliation is also regarded as a necessary foundation for building a new country from the ruins of 17 years of devastating civil war.
A successful ballot in oil-rich Angola would represent a major boost to the stalled process of democratization in southern Africa - particularly in Mozambique and South Africa - and would offer a new beachhead for the United States in the region.
It would also enable neighboring Namibia to secure vital water and hydropower supplies from the Cunene and Kavango rivers in war-torn southern Angola.
"If South Africa goes in the right direction to a democracy, then the two countries [Angola and South Africa] could lead the way in the region," US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Hank Cohen told the Monitor during a visit to Luanda Sept. 6 and 7. "Angola could become a little Persian Gulf down here."
Angola is currently producing 500,000 barrels of oil per day. It also has an additional 2.1 billion barrels in proven reserves and an estimated 3 billion barrels in sites offshore from the equatorial enclave of Cabinda.
The international focus is less on who will be the ballot victors and more on whether the victors and the vanquished can coexist and cooperate in building a democracy with a functioning economy.
President Jose Eduardo dos Santos of the Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA) and Jonas Savimbi, leader of the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), both have paid lip service to the concept of a government of "reconstruction and reconciliation."
There are also signs of a new commitment to peace from the leaderships of UNITA, formerly backed by the US and South Africa, and the MPLA, formerly backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba.
But as ballot day approaches, there is mounting concern that the stored animosities of the civil war could overwhelm the fragile momentum toward democracy that is now evident in the streets and towns of this war-ravaged country of about 12 million people.
"There is a political commitment at the leadership level for both the peace and electoral process," says Margaret Anstee, United Nations special envoy to Angola. "But the whole thing could fall down on logistics."
Ms. Anstee was referring to Angola's shattered transport and communications system, the continued threat posed by unexploded mines, and the unreliability of basic services such as electricity and gasoline.
Delayed demobilization of the opposing MPLA and UNITA armies and the slow progress in forming a new national army could also jeopardize the prospect of peace. In the run-up to the ballot, many diplomats, aid workers, and government officials have sent their families out of the country; embassies and aid organizations have drawn up detailed evacuation plans in event of the outbreak of new hostilities.
Western diplomats say international leverage may be the only way to prevent post-ballot violence.
"Both sides know that if they deviate from the straight-and-narrow there will be a very adverse international reaction," says Anstee, who oversees the 800-strong UN Angolan Verification Mission.
Some Western diplomats express hope for a divided result that would see one party win the presidential ballot and the other win the legislative ballot for 223 deputies in the national Parliament. This would increase pressure for an inclusive government, they say.
"I think the ideal result would be for Savimbi to win the presidential ballot and the MPLA to win a majority in the Parliament," a Western diplomat says. "That would ensure strong leadership for the daunting tasks ahead and at the same time provide a balance to ensure that democratic principles prevailed."
International aid workers see UNITA as the more disciplined and motivated of the parties but fear the autocratic and militaristic leanings of Mr. Savimbi and the strongly pro-Africanist stance of his guerrillas.
The MPLA, which has shed its Marxist-Leninist program and embraced multiparty rule and a free market economy, is seen as the more flexible of the two parties. But some doubt whether it can shed its legacy of mismanagement and corruption and muster the necessary discipline to rebuild the country.
The parties are running neck-and-neck in both the presidential and legislative ballots. Thus, the presence of nine other presidential candidates and the participation of 20 smaller parties is unlikely to affect the result.
But the combined votes for candidates from the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and the National Democratic Party of Angola could prevent either Savimbi or Mr. Dos Santos from winning the 50 percent needed to avoid a second ballot within 30 days of the result being announced.
Western diplomats believe that these smaller parties could win up to 5 percent of the vote or even hold the balance of power in the legislative ballot.
"Any scenario which forces a coalition or more inclusive government is preferable to an outright win by either sides in both ballots," one diplomat says.
In a 10-week registration campaign ending Aug. 10, about 4.8 million voters out of an estimated 5.4 million voters responded to the call. "This surpassed all our expectations," UN envoy Anstee says.
The new spirit of democracy is vividly on display in Luanda's bustling Kinaxixi square. An MPLA war memorial displaying an armored vehicle with gun at the ready has been topped with a large cut-out of a peace dove carrying a ballot paper in its beak.
A voter information booth hands out T-shirts and literature to the Africa/calypso beat of Angolan music. Nearby, a make-shift "Cafe Democracia" provides a good vantage point to watch the three-phase electronic billboard sounding the praises of Dos Santos: For rights, equality, and a certain peace - vote MPLA.
As the ballot approaches, war-weary Angolans seem united in their quest for lasting peace. "This election is a very important event," says Jose Goncalves, a journalist in his 40's who has lived in Luanda since birth. "It is the first time in my life I will be able to vote."