By Shrikesh Laxmidas
HUAMBO, Angola (Reuters) - A four-lane avenue separates the shelled ruins of the art deco Ruacana Cinema from Huambo's shiny new Chinese-built railway station, a symbol of the leaps Angola has made to recover from a devastating 27-year civil war that ended a decade ago.
As Angolans prepare to go to the polls on Friday for only the second time since the end of the war, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos's ruling MPLA party reminds them daily of the rewards of peace and boasts of its reconstruction achievements.
In power for nearly 33 years in Africa's second-largest oil producer after Nigeria, Dos Santos - who turns 70 on Tuesday - is expected to lead his party to a one-sided election win thanks to his political dominance and his carefully cultivated official image as guarantor of Angola's peace and rebuilding.
"We were at the abyss for a long time, now ... we can see the great gains," said Joao Limpinho, a government-employed signals manager at the railway terminal at Huambo, Angola's second city, 600 kilometers (375 miles) southeast of Luanda.
But, while big investments in construction and infrastructure have covered over many of the scars of war, critics and ordinary Angolans say widespread poverty and inequality are festering, unhealed sores.
The reserved, inscrutable Dos Santos, Africa's second longest-serving leader after Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, faces accusations from opponents that he has squandered his country's huge oil wealth to enrich himself, his family and a small elite, while failing to deliver enough housing, education and jobs for most Angolans.
Independently of how they vote on Friday, many ordinary citizens are unhappy and openly clamor for a better life.
"We want schools for our children, we want work. I make 10,000 kwanzas (around $100) a month, my husband earns a miserable 20,000 kwanzas, and we have nothing left at the end of the month," said Tucha Manuel, a market fruit-seller in the capital Luanda, one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Backed by an oil output boom, Angola has posted rapid growth. Between 2002 and 2008 the economy expanded by an average of 15 percent per year.
A fall in oil prices caused growth to brake to 2.4 percent in 2009 and 3.4 percent the next year. After disappointing oil output due to technical problems last year, when the economy also grew 3.4 percent, GDP is expected to expand between 8 percent and 10 percent this year.
The IMF says Angola's GDP per capita in 2010 was $4,328, among the highest in Africa.
But rights groups like Global Witness and Human Rights Watch and local rights activists have leveled a barrage of criticism against Dos Santos and his ruling MPLA for failing to share the oil riches more equally among Angola's 18 million people.
SKYSCRAPERS AND SHANTIES
The rich-poor divide is glaringly visible across the nation.
In Luanda, glossy skyscrapers and high-end shops and restaurants are close to sprawling, crowded, tin-roof shantytowns whose poor residents sell goods - from flip-flops to smartphones - on the streets.
The mostly new road between Huambo and Benguela is flanked by dozens of villages composed of shacks whose residents have no electricity and still collect water from nearby streams.
The MPLA says it has cut poverty levels from 68 percent of the population in 2002 to around 39 percent in 2009, but in its election campaigning the party and its leader have tried to respond to the popular demands for social improvements.
"I am the first to admit the difficult reality that many families face. We will not stand and watch while there are situations of huge inequality in our land," Dos Santos told supporters in a campaign speech at the weekend.
Campaigning under the slogan "Grow More, Distribute Better", the MPLA has pledged to introduce a minimum wage and subsidies for the elderly.
The party airs video adverts listing its achievements - 2,700 kilometers of railways, 148 railway stations, 10 renovated airports, 400 bridges, 6,500 kilometers of roads.
Dos Santos says public investment projects like a new dam in Huambo province and the Chinese-built railway line that links the ports of Lobito and Benguela to Huambo will help diversify the oil-dependent economy, create jobs and reduce poverty.
While alleging the government is setting up an unequal electoral battle through its control of state institutions and the electoral process, opposition parties like the MPLA's former civil war foe UNITA are also battering Dos Santos and his administration with accusations of graft and mismanagement.
"We are listening to the people in every corner of the country saying there is much suffering and that they want change," UNITA leader Isaias Samakuva told supporters at a rally in Luanda on Saturday.
In the unlit UNITA headquarters in Huambo, local party spokesman Liberty Chiaka points to a power cut as evidence that the MPLA's infrastructure achievements are hollow.
In Luanda, Huambo and other cities, the streets are filled with MPLA billboards, dwarfing the publicity efforts of UNITA and the seven other parties and coalitions running in the poll.
"The MPLA makes use of the state's resources for its own benefit, including state-owned media. Angola has one of the most corrupt governments in the world," Chiaka said.
Huambo was one of the main battlegrounds in the war that set the MPLA, backed by Russia and Cuba, against UNITA rebels aided by the United States and apartheid South Africa.
The city changed hands several times during the conflict, and suffered most during a 55-day siege by the MPLA to oust UNITA in 1993, a year after a peace deal and an abortive presidential election turned out to be a false dawn.
Though covered up with cement, bullet and shell holes are still visible on many buildings.
Amputees on crutches or hand-pedaled tricycles are a common sight on the streets of the airy city of almost a million people that the Portuguese, Angola's colonial masters until independence in 1975, liked so much they named it New Lisbon.
Much of the damage has been repaired. Fresh tarmac covers once wrecked roads and new schools, universities, hospitals, sports and culture centers have been built in the last few years.
"We did what we planned, recover and also build from scratch," said Agostinho Ndjaka, the No.2 MPLA official in Huambo.
The MPLA won the civil war and then crushed its rivals in a 2008 election by obtaining 82 percent of the vote before accelerating its reconstruction drive.
DOUBTS ABOUT ELECTION "REFEREE"
Opponents and critics say Dos Santos runs an opaque administration and virtual one-party state behind a facade of democracy, avoiding public scrutiny and suppressing dissent.
According to a constitution approved in 2010, which was criticized by the opposition for increasing the president's powers, the head of the winning party in parliamentary elections becomes head of state, without the need for a separate ballot.
UNITA, which won 10 percent of the vote in 2008, accused the ruling party then of rigging the polls and has spent much of the current campaign challenging preparations for the ballot.
It says the MPLA is using the national election commission to undermine transparency in matters such as the publication of the electoral roll, vote-counting and transmission of results.
"They will create tricks so that the vote that is counted is not the one we put in the ballot box," Samakuva said, adding that his party may lead a protest to the elections committee headquarters if its complaints are not addressed.
The MPLA says the opposition parties are already making excuses for their weak national support.
"As they say in football, we're still in the warm-up, the game hasn't even started and they're already complaining about the referee," said Manuel Vicente, the MPLA's candidate for vice-president.
With Dos Santos seen headed for a comfortable win, oil investors and major energy buyers such as China and the United States are trying to decipher his future political plans.
Speculation about a succession blossomed last year when his party declined to reject a report in an Angolan weekly that quoted MPLA sources saying he had chosen Vicente, then head of state oil firm Sonangol, to replace him after the election.
That view gathered force when the president brought Vicente into the government in January and then named him as No.2 in the ruling party's candidates list.
It is not clear whether Dos Santos will complete a new five-year term or oversee a handover of power. But there is no mistaking what many ordinary Angolans want to see immediately.
"We want the country to change, more schools, more jobs," said Vitor Mayor, who is unemployed, as he walked with his two small children in a market at Viana, just south of Luanda.
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Tim Pearce)
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