The most interesting election in Namibia since independence?

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Namibia’s one-party dominant political system is under threat. Having dominated the political scene since the reintroduction of multiparty politics, the ruling party only just scraped a majority in the recent general election. So what does this mean for the country’s future? Thomas Cripps investigates.

An election in Namibia has rarely, if ever, generated such interest. Corruption scandals, a prolonged economic crisis and a charismatic opponent, all generated engrossment in the recent elections.

Whilst, on the surface the outcome held little surprise, with SWAPO and sitting president Hage Geingob winning the parliamentary and presidential election, respectively. The results and their implications for the future tell a different story.

SWAPO and Geingob were declared victorious after long delays in the vote counting process and much criticism of the new electronic voting machines (EVMs), leading to opposition leaders, such as McHenry Venaani of the PDM considering contacting the courts over ‘anomalies and irregularities.’

Continuity and change

The return of SWAPO to government and Geingob as president is hardly a revelation, with SWAPO having won and maintained power in Namibia for five (now six) elections since the first one in 1994, following liberation from South African hegemony. In all those elections, SWAPO has returned with over 75% of the vote, and this majority was only increased to 80% in 2014, with Geingob gaining 87%, the highest of any SWAPO leader running for president.

Yet, the manner of the most recent victory, will seem to Geingob and SWAPO to be tainted, as for the first time in history, their vote share decreased below a 2/3 majority, as they only returned to parliament with 63 seats compared to the 77 they had five years before. Even more of a concern would be the erosion of Geingob’s support base- from winning 87% of the presidential vote in 2014, this plummeted to 56.3% in 2019. On the one hand this could be due to the arrival of a viable alternative in Panduleni Itula, who is also steeped in SWAPO history, withering away much of the support of Geingob in urban areas, notably Windhoek, where Itula garnered much support amongst the growing unemployed urban youth population. However, it is also a sign that people are looking for alternatives to the traditional, further highlighted by the growth in support for the PDM, who increased their parliamentary seats from 5 to 16. This in despite of their former association with the apartheid regime, as the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance.

What is clear, is that for the first time in Namibia’s post-independence history, is that SWAPO are facing a serious challenge, as trust in their leadership capabilities is being questioned more seriously than ever before.  The erosion of trust in SWAPO’s governance stems firstly from a persistent economic crisis, huge rates of unemployment, and growing socio-economic inequality. Secondly, from allegations of corruption, following the ‘fishrot’ scandal, which led to the arrests of two SWAPO ministers. Moreover, these issues of trust were further damaged following a delay of 72 hours to count the votes and also irregularities with the use of EVM’s. Political analyst Ndumba Kamwanyah commented: “The counting, accuracy and verification process leave us more confused. One would think that the reason why we opted for [electronic voting machines] is for the purposes of effectiveness and efficiency.”  This was in comparison to the 2014 elections where the results following SWAPO and Geingob’s overwhelming victory were released only a day after voting took place.  All of this has continued to add to the growing sense of distrust in Geingob and SWAPO, as these unusual developments have given rise to doubts amongst the electorate. Something, which opposition leaders have seized upon, evidenced by the fact that the official leader of the opposition McHenry Venaani boycotted the election announcement citing these irregularities.

The challenges of liberation

SWAPO will certainly be aware of the problems that have arisen in the countries surrounding them with issues of corruption, with the ANC in South Africa and ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe being embroiled in such issues, which has not only caused internal problems, but also externally in terms of foreign condemnation.

It is then perhaps with this in mind that Geingob came out in his first speech since retaining the presidency declaring, “I will intensify the fight against corruption at all levels, so that we can arrest this evil.”  He can then be seen to be attempting to calm internal critics and assuage the pressure he and the party are currently under. Additionally, a second motivation could well be to shore up international support in the wake of the issues of corruption, especially considering the economic issues and the fact Namibia’s ODA (Official Development Assistance) receipts have been increasing since 2015. With Namibia’s economic problems being predicted by the IMF to continue at least into the first quarter 2020, SWAPO are likely to become more reliant on this as financial support and as such as a means of co-opting the support of the people, particularly the disaffected youth in urban areas.

This should, however, be placed in perspective. Panduleni Itula, whilst standing as an independent was able to tap into SWAPO liberation history, as such the fact that he and Geingob shared around 87% of the vote for president, places it at around a very similar mark that SWAPO had obtained in 2014. There were hopes amongst the opposition political groups that these two would split the SWAPO vote, yet this did not materialise to the extent they would have wished. Considering, Itula is ethnically from the most populous northern region of Namibia, it is perhaps surprising that he did not do better in this area, as SWAPO and Geingob continued to hold a significant majority. This, however, should not detract from what was an unprecedented result in Namibia post-independence history.

Breaking new ground

All in all, these elections have proven to be the most interesting and significant in Namibia since independence. SWAPO’s monopoly on power and their infallible image, has to an extent been broken. For them there is a need to rebuild trust in the wake of corruption issues and importantly on their ability to improve the economic performance of the nation and the social conditions of the people. For the opposition it is a matter of holding them to account and challenging them on a regular basis, which is now possible following the breaking of their majority hold on power. This then leaves Namibia in a fascinating situation, that has not been seen before.

 

Thomas Cripps completed his MA in African history at the School of Oriental and African studies and now runs his own business as a tutor, editor and writer.

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