Democracy Beyond Swapo in Namibia

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With the Regional and Local Authority elections on 25 November 2020 Namibia’s political landscape has changed. Voters practiced their right to make political choices. Namibians are entering a new era, and it is not yet sure how this will play out in the years to come. As liberation movement in government since Independence in 1990, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) was in for a rude awakening.

This was captured by the headings in the local newspapers. The state owned daily ran the headline “Swapo loses some ground”, which must be a strong contender for the understatement of the year. With “Swapo holds on by fingernails” and “Ruling party bleeds rural and urban votes” the independent print media came closer to reality.

Early warning signals

While the size of the avalanche was hardly anticipated, it didn’t come entirely out of the blue. As SWAPO’s decline shows, arrogance of power is not the best way to maintain legitimacy. The self-righteousness displayed when president Geingob ahead of the November 2019 presidential and national assembly elections responded to criticism “elections are coming – go and defeat me there” has now come back to bite the ruling party.

That election showed that the sands were shifting slowly, the results revealing wear and tear. With 65% SWAPO lost its two-third majority, and was well down on the 80% secured in 2014. Hage Geingob was re-elected with a humiliating 56%, a significant collapse from the 87% just four years before. Scoring almost 30% of votes, the “independent” SWAPO candidate Panduleni Itula personified the dissatisfaction among party followers. Expelled in the aftermath of the polls, he subsequently established the Independent Patriots for Change (IPC).

For its part, the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) more than tripled its parliamentary seats as the country’s official opposition. With the Landless People’s Movement (LPM), emerging as a new force, the 2020-2025 legislative period, starting on Namibia’s Independence Day (21 March), promised to be anything but boring.

Self-righteousness and intimidation as governance

I have heard you” reassured President Geingob the citizens. He also declared 2020 as the “Year of Introspection”. But popular expectations were frustrated.

Since late November 2019 more and more details have emerged of the scale of corruption in the infamous #fishrot case – Namibia’s hitherto biggest bribery scandal. As revealed by two investigative journalists, ministers and several leading officials of state-owned enterprises were involved in illegal transactions amounting to billions of Namibian Dollars. The ringleaders are now under arrest awaiting trial.

The deals, allocating fishing quota to the biggest Icelandic fishing company, raised suspicions that senior party figures were also involved. But as in earlier cases of corruption and other abuses of offices, president Geingob decided on a soft-handed approach. The proclaimed introspection was limited to an internal self-examination with no visible results. This clearly infuriated parts of the population.

Party leaders continued to brush aside the dissatisfaction. Addressing soldiers, defence minister Peter Vilho accused whites of being “obsessed with the idea of the black government failing”. He warned of regime change and lashed out at “misguided intellectuals” and “unpatriotic members of society” seeking political mileage. In response to the wide range of criticism, he again pointed to the white minority as the root cause to all governance failures.

In mid-October President Geingob commented on the growing number of whites (estimated at less than 5% of the population) registering as voters. With reference to their suspected intentions to support anything but SWAPO he warned: “I will not forget that. People are declaring war against Swapo”.

The anti-white slant was widely criticized. The PDM complained with the Ombusman. He dismissed the claim with the argument, that the accusations in actual fact had a unifying impact among citizens.

The former commander of the Namibian army also achieved unifying responses. At a rally he encouraged those in attendance to slit the throats of party defectors. The public outrage forced him to apologise for “that cut-throat thing” on national TV.

And the winner is …

It says a lot about Namibians that such intimidation did not prevent them from voting for the parties of their choice. This makes democracy the winner. But it also made SWAPO the loser.

In the 14 regional councils, SWAPO’s vote dropped from 83 to 57 percent. The party was in sole control before and held 40 of 42 seats in the National Council. This overwhelming dominance has now been reduced to 28 seats – an ongoing majority that is largely explained by the fact that the party’s strongholds in the North remained to a large extent loyal. But massive losses were recorded everywhere else.

The southern regions of Hardap and //Karas were seized by LPM. The country’s central-western Erongo region went to the IPC, which also made some modest inroads in SWAPO’s northern home base. Kunene in the north west went to a coalition of the PDM with the United Democratic Front (UDF). SWAPO also lost its absolute majority in the central and eastern Khomas, Omaheke and Otjizondjupa regions.

In the local authority elections, SWAPO garnered just 40 per cent of the vote, a significant collapse from the 73 percent secured in 2015. It maintained full control over 20 of the previously held 52 (out of 57) municipalities and town councils. The party’s Politburo decided to negotiate 12 possible governance alliances with two of the smaller regional-ethnic parties. However, they both rejected the offer.

Celebrating SWAPO’s fifty fith birthday in 2015, its secretary general and now the country’s vice president Nangolo Mbumba addressed defectors warning that it’s cold outside SWAPO. Five years later, SWAPO has found itself in the cold in many local settings, despite maintaining a clear control over the central government. The slogan from the struggle days, that SWAPO is the nation and the nation is SWAPO, has finally become history.

As in many African countries, urban areas were particularly likely to give support to the opposition. Most urban centres, including Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, were seized by other parties – either single-handedly or in planned coalitions. A disaster was the loss of the capital Windhoek. Having previously controlled 12 of the 15 seats in the municipality, SWAPO now holds just five seats. The first-past-the-post election system prevented an even worse outcome. In some cases, SWAPO candidates were elected with a mere one-third of votes (in one Windhoek district by a three votes majority) and would have been defeated by a united opposition.

The future of Namibia’s democracy

Living in denial of the defeat will not help SWAPO, nor the future of democracy. The party’s spokesperson Hilma Nicanor clearly adopted the wrong tune when she tried to “Trump” the election by accusing “outside forces” of trying to unseat the ruling party. Her protestations that SWAPO was “victorious” suggest the party is a long way from effectively responding to popular concerns.

These elections have put Namibia’s political culture at a crossroad. Frustrated members of the SWAPO establishment already threatened during the election campaign that the party can use its control over the budget of the central state to settle political scores. The fiscus, as some suggested, could therefore withhold funds to financially starve towns and regions governed by other parties.

Such threats were met with accusations that this would border on ethnic cleansing, and at the very least would undermine Namibia’s status as one of Africa’s more democratic states. In turn, this stresses the centrifugal tendencies emerging at the heart of the Namibian political scene, fuelling regional if not tribal animosities. This does not fit well with the principle “One Namibia, One Nation”, the slogan from SWAPO’s anti-colonial struggle days.

It is therefore a very positive sign that President Geingob dismissed such suggestions in no uncertain terms. As he declared, those elected into offices are supposed to serve all people and no funds will be withheld. Addressing the first cabinet meeting after the election, he stated: “Our citizens have spoken and made their democratic choice. As democrats, we have heard the voices of our people”. He then added: “Ultimately, democracy and the people of Namibia are the winners.” This is encouraging at a moment in time when Namibia(ns) are entering new democratic turf.

But having talked the talk, Geingob must now walk the walk.

The four year road to the country’s next National Assembly and Presidential elections might be bumpy. Not only will SWAPO be in opposition on regional and local governance levels for the first time, but opposition parties are also having their first taste of entering into coalitions and governing. Everyone will therefore be learning new lessons, and some hiccups are likely. This is not necessarily a bad thing: democratic hiccups are part of a healthy pluralism. But it is also important that existing political tensions to not further escalate.

Soon after Independence, “Namibian and proud of it” was a popular sticker uniting the people beyond all differences. Maybe the time has come to reprint and display it anew.

Henning Melber, Extraordinary Professor, Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria

This is an updated and longer version of an article originally drafted (and subsequently modified) for The Conversation Africa.

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