LUANDA - Angola on Thursday eagerly awaited the outcome of the most tightly contested vote in its democratic history, with early results showing a wide margin for incumbent Joao Lourenco but the opposition also claiming a lead.

Ballot counting began after polls closed on Wednesday in the oil-rich nation, where multi-party elections were only introduced in 1992.

Preliminary results published overnight by Angola’s electoral commission gave the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) 60.65 percent of the vote with 33 percent of ballots counted.

The main opposition group, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by charismatic leader Adalberto Costa Junior, was at 33.85 percent.

The MPLA has ruled Angola for nearly 50 years after the country gained independence from Portugal.

Residents in Luanda reacted with mixed feelings to the preliminary count that was given ample coverage by local media, with state newspaper Jornal de Angola’s front page on Thursday saying: “MPLA leads the count.”

“I voted for UNITA, and I do not believe in these results,” said Jorge, a 40-year-old mechanic who did not give his surname, accusing the electoral commission of being in cahoots with the ruling party.

“I feel really bad. The country is not going to change, it’s always the same story.”

Lourenco, a Soviet-educated former general who had promised a new era for the southern African nation when he succeeded veteran leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos five years ago, has trumpeted a list of achievements.

He is credited with making far-reaching reforms, including boosting financial transparency and efficiency in parastatal organisations, fighting sweeping nepotism and corruption, and promoting business-friendly policies to lure foreign investors.

“I am happy, the MPLA has given young people opportunities, there is more work and transparency,” said 27-year-old shopkeeper Madalena Antonio commenting on the early results.

“The government did what it could do. Things will get better.”

But UNITA’s deputy leader Abel Chivukuvuku said the party’s own tally showed it was ahead.

“Our poll counting centres... give us clear provisional indication of a winning trend for UNITA in all provinces of the country,” he told a live streamed night conference. “We are confident, calm and tranquil.”

The MPLA traditionally wields a grip over the electoral process, and state media and opposition and civic groups have raised fears of voter tampering.

Results in past elections have been contested, in a process that can take several weeks.

More than 14 million people were registered to vote.

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.

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.