LUANDA — Angola's parliament Thursday approved the nation's first constitution, cementing the power of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled Africa's top oil producer for 30 years.
The charter passed with 186 votes in the 220-seat parliament, announced Fernando da Piedade Dias dos Santos, president of the National Assembly, drawing loud applause and chants of "Angola, Angola!" in the chamber.
"Today is a day of victory and happiness for the people of Angola. Long live the Angolan people," he said.
The session was boycotted by the main opposition UNITA party, which claimed the constitutional process was flawed and undermined democracy.
The document, which still needs final approval from the Constitutional Court and Dos Santos, replaces an interim constitutional law in effect in the southern African country since 1991.
Its 244 articles set out how the country is to be governed and defines the rights of citizens, but notably strengthens the powers of the president.
Under the new system, the president will be chosen from the top of the list of the winning party in parliamentary elections, which suggests that Angolans will not vote again until 2012, when the current legislative session ends.
Bornito de Sousa, a lawmaker from the ruling MPLA who headed the constitutional commission, told parliament the charter was "a reflection of equality, of good sense, and true representation of the electorate."
When asked if the election would take place in 2012, he told AFP: "Yes, I think so, but this is a political decision."
Dos Santos will choose his own vice president, who would operate as his deputy with a hands-on role in the government, in place of a prime minister.
Parliament can call for the president to be removed from office, but such a motion must be referred to the Supreme Court, whose members - along with all other courts - are appointed by the president.
On Wednesday, the opposition National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) walked out of parliament and on Thursday the party boycotted the final vote.
"We walked out because we didn't want to be part of this constitution which is a complete fraud," UNITA parliamentarian Raul Danda told AFP on Wednesday.
"This is a very sad day for democracy in Angola and that's why we are all wearing black, because it's like going to the graveyard to bury democracy."
UNITA opposes a number of clauses, including the party list system for president, and said that MPLA was using its 81 percent majority in parliament to push through changes that undermine democracy.
Dos Santos has been accused of clinging to power. The 67-year-old took over following the death of Angola's first president Agostinho Neto in 1979. He faced only one round in 1992 elections, which were aborted after triggering a new phase of civil war.
Presidential elections were expected last year, and analysts said the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) appeared to have the most to gain from the new electoral system.
"The delay would appear to favour the MPLA, but it could provide UNITA with an opportunity to elect a new leader who could mount a serious challenge to Dos Santos," Economist Intelligent Unit African specialist Edward George told AFP.
Jose Patrocinio of the Angolan human rights organisation OMUNGA said: "The process has been accelerated in recent days, violating the rights of citizens and disrespecting the normal elements of political ethics.
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