Luanda (AFP) -
Ballot counting began in Angola Wednesday after polls closed in what was widely seen as the most competitive vote in the country's democratic history, with incumbent President Joao Lourenco squaring up against charismatic opposition leader Adalberto Costa Junior.
The election has been overshadowed by Angola's many woes -- a struggling economy, inflation, poverty and drought, compounded by the death of a former strongman president.
'All votes have been cast,' said Lucas Quilundo, a spokesman for Angola's electoral commission after polls closed.
'We can consider that the elections were a success and took place in an exemplary manner'.
Results are expected within a few days. In past elections, results have been contested, in a process that can take several weeks.
The People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which has ruled the oil-rich nation for nearly five decades, faced its most serious challenge since the first multi-party vote in 1992.
Eight political parties were running, but the real contest lay between the MPLA and long-standing rival and ex-rebel movement the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
Pre-voting opinion polls suggested that support for the MPLA -- which won 61 percent of the vote in 2017 elections -- would dwindle, while UNITA -- which has entered an electoral pact with two other parties -- would make gains.
But UNITA's inroads might not be enough to unseat Lourenco, 68, who succeeded veteran leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos five years ago.
Dozens of voters lined up at polling stations in the early morning, but by midday they had slowed to a trickle.
Both leading candidates -- Lourenco at the capital's Lusiada University and Costa Junior in the working-class Nova Vida district -- called on the public to make their voices heard while casting their ballots.
Some stations started to close in the early evening about an hour before the scheduled time, AFP reporters said.
- 'Closer than ever' -
Costa Junior, 60, is popular among youth -- a significant and growing voting bloc -- and has pledged to 'eradicate poverty' and create jobs.
Analyst Justin Pearce said the race looked 'very competitive'.
'The further we've gotten from the civil war, the less currency... the MPLA has had,' said the history lecturer at South Africa's Stellenbosch University.
'The outcome looks like it's going to be closer than ever before.'
The MPLA traditionally wields a grip over the electoral process and state media in Angola, and opposition and civic groups have raised fears of voter tampering.
In the working-class district of Cazenga, 57-year-old Miguel said he would welcome the vote's outcome, whatever it was.
'We have to accept the results, it's the democratic game,' he said, without giving his surname.
But Alberto Bernardo Muxibo, another voter, disagreed.
'We don't have a real democracy. The government oppresses the people,' he said.
- Poverty and graft -
Lourenco, a Soviet-educated former general who promised a new era for Angola when he was first elected, is credited with making far-reaching reforms in one of southern Africa's economic powerhouses.
'The West would not mind an MPLA victory -- even with concerns of vote rigging,' said Johannesburg-based analyst Marisa Lourenco said.
'Governments and companies abroad prefer stability over change'.
And little has changed for most of Angola's 33 million people, for whom life is a daily grind.
Angola is Africa's second largest crude producer, but the oil bonanza also nurtured corruption and nepotism under dos Santos, who died in Spain last month.
The low-key, night-time repatriation of his remains in the final leg of campaigning has added a macabre touch to the election.
Dos Santos will be buried on Sunday, which would have been his 80th birthday.
More than 14 million people were registered to vote across the vast southern African nation.
The United States commended Angola for holding a competitive vote.
'Efforts to strengthen democratic institutions will provide a foundation for a safe, prosperous, healthy and inclusive future,' State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters.