By Stephen Eisenhammer
LUANDA (Reuters) - Angola's ruling MPLA party held a commanding lead in provisional general election results, with 64.57 percent of the votes tallied compared with the opposition UNITA party's 24.4 percent, the electoral commission said on Thursday.
Angola, home to sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest economy, held a smooth national election on Wednesday with the MPLA's former defense minister Joao Lourenco expected to be voted in as the OPEC-member's first new president for 38 years.
The People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) earlier said it was on track to win a two-thirds parliamentary majority, based on its own numbers, as votes were still being tallied.
The provisional results were based on about 63.74 percent of the votes cast, said Júlia Ferreira, spokeswoman for National Electoral Commission.
Further provisional results will come out in coming days with definitive results required by law to be released within two weeks of the vote. There were 9 million Angolans registered to vote in a country of 28 million spread across an area twice the size of France.
In Angola, political parties are allowed to observe the elections by posting party members at every polling station and by assimilating results, the parties attempt to foretell the election outcome.
The MPLA calculated earlier on Thursday that after checking 5 million votes it was on course for the two-thirds majority that is required to govern alone.
"We can affirm that the future president will be comrade João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço,"João Martins, party secretary for political and electoral affairs, told reporters.
Juilão Mateus Paulo, MPLA's secretary general, said after the release of the provisional results: "We think we're approaching a two-thirds parliamentary majority which would be a great satisfaction for the party."
However, the main opposition, National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), said the party did not recognize the provisional result, as it did not tally with its numbers.
Paulo said the opposition always complain about the vote outcome.
Before the provisional results were released, UNITA’s parliamentary head Adalberto Costa Júnior told Reuters: "Looking at the trend, the MPLA won't have a majority at all."
Should the MPLA win, Lourenço, a quiet 63-year-old more used to army barracks and the closed doors of party politics than the public spotlight, would replace veteran leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos. He will remain as head of the party, however, giving him potentially sweeping powers over decision-making.
DOS SANTOS DYNASTY
Dos Santos, 74, Africa's longest-ruling president behind Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema, steps down after guiding Angola from Marxism to capitalism while embracing Chinese oil-for-infrastructure investment.
His daughter Isabel heads national energy company Sonangol, which runs Africa's second biggest oil industry. His son, José Filomeno, is in charge of the $5 billion state investment fund.
The MPLA, which has ruled Angola since independence from Portugal in 1975, has lost some support due to political cronyism, though many Angolans remain loyal to the party that emerged victorious from 27 years of civil war in 2002.
Lourenço has promised to focus on fixing Angola’s economy which has been devastated by the fall in the price of oil. The economy contracted 3.6 percent last year and is expected to post only minor growth in 2017.
On Tuesday, Lourenço said he did not rule out negotiating with the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank as he sought to establish an "economic miracle" in Angola.
"We assess that the next president will seek closer cooperation with the IMF," Robert Besseling, analysts at Exx Africa, said in a note on Thursday.
"It is likely that Lourenço’s presidency will be marked initially by continuity and moderate changes in policy."
In the early hours of Thursday morning, the electoral commission said that 15 polling stations failed to open on Wednesday due to transport issues and that about 1,300 people would vote on Saturday instead.
The commission spokesperson said the incident would not have an impact on the release of partial results.
(Editing by Joe Brock, James Macharia and Richard Balmforth)