Why elections in Namibia were less boring this time

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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? Henning Melber investigates …

The South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO of Namibia) has performed exceptionally well among the liberation movements as governments. “One Namibia, one nation” and “SWAPO is the nation and the nation is SWAPO” were two of the struggle slogans. These were supported by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly since the mid-1970s, declaring SWAPO “the sole and authentic representative of the Namibian people” – a status no other anti-colonial movement had ever been awarded. This unique recognition translated after Independence in the false equation that the party is the government and the government is the state.

In November 1989 the first democratic elections for a Constituent Assembly took place under supervision of the United Nations. Since then every five years elections for a National Assembly and the country’s President were held in parallel. In November 2014, SWAPO scored 80% of votes. Its presidential candidate Hage Geingob came close to 87% of votes. As these figures document, the political hegemony had been firmly in place for almost 30 years. SWAPO’s patriotic narrative remained rooted in the official discourse and daily political culture. But the electorate gradually changed. The “born free” have become a relevant factor, while the party displayed a growing gerontocratic structure. It remains firmly embedded in “struggle credits”, though the first generation is more and more replaced by the second struggle generation.

The younger generation felt increasingly excluded and marginalised. This corresponded with a steady growth of unemployment. Almost half of the population below the age of 35 years, among them many highly educated, is without work. For respondents to the latest Afrobarometer survey unemployment was the most important matter (54%). Drought (30%), poverty (21%), education and water supply (20% each) followed. Corruption (16%), land (13%) and crime (11%) ranked surprisingly lower. The wear and tear, exacerbated by an economic crisis, had already been summarised on occasion of this year’s 29th Independence Day on 21 March. It became evident, that the socio-economic misery was also affecting the elections on 27 November. For the first time, they promised to be more than “business as usual”, since the growing frustration over promises without delivery reached an extent, which clearly impacted on voters’ behaviour, especially in the more urbanised regions.

The populism of the Geingob administration backfired due to unrealistic promises never delivered. Geingob also reacted thin-skinned to media reports covering corruption scandals. When just days ahead of the elections news broke over a massive fraud in the fisheries sector, implicating the biggest Icelandic fishing company, the minister of fisheries, the minister of justice and several other high-ranking officials, he smelled “media sabotage”. He claimed his credibility would deliberately be undermined through “fake news”. Meanwhile he accepted the resignation of the two ministers, whom he thanked for their patriotic services. The culprits were finally arrested and now face trial. A documentary broadcasted by Al Jazeera on 1 December on what makes international headlines as #Fishrot disclosed details on the massive fraudulent transactions bordering to state capture the Namibian way. Both SWAPO and Geingob, as well as his personal lawyer, were implicated by the disclosures too.

While Geingob had suspected that the timing of the revelations was deliberate, an editorial in the weekly “Windhoek Observer” bemoaned: “Stealing public funds and misusing government resources are the natural state of affairs in Namibia.” Meanwhile, in contrast to the grand scale embezzlement, people were killed over a tin of fish. And one only wonders what the effects on the elections might have been, if the revealing Al Jazeera documentary would have been screened only a few days before the elections on 27 November.

The changing party landscape

And so, the final results, announced on 30 November, came not so much as a surprise. Despite a watershed, they rather confirmed some of the prognoses. Many among the 820,000 of the 1.3 million registered voters (60.4%) had used their power to tell SWAPO and its presidential candidate loud and clearly that the honeymoon is over. While SWAPO lost the two-third majority it held since the elections in 1994, ten more political parties managed to snatch enough votes to enter the next National Assembly, whose members will be sworn in for a five-year term in office on 21 March 2020. SWAPO remained the biggest party in all 14 regions of the country, but in some of them with less than 50% of the votes.

New political parties, even when created by SWAPO dissidents, had so far never managed to establish a sustainable alternative. They snatched votes from other opposition parties to become irrelevant later on. This time, the new kid on the block has been the Landless Peoples’ Movement (LPM). It was founded after a fall out of the deputy minister of land, Bernardus Swartbooi, with SWAPO over the land policy. The LPM’s aim to secure 20 of the 96 elected seats in the National Assembly could have been dismissed as the usual wishful thinking among aspiring candidates. How many votes the LPM would really garner from a SWAPO electorate remained to be seen. It could be considered as a force to reckon with in the sparsely populated areas South of Rehoboth. But as so many other of the existing parties its basis was likely to be almost exclusively rooted in a particular regional-ethnic stronghold among the Nama communities. At the end, the LPM secured enough votes, mainly from the southern !Kharas region as its home base, to enter the new Parliament with four seats as the third biggest party.

Most interesting was earlier on the speculation, if support would be sufficient to replace the Popular Democratic Movement (PDM) as the official opposition. But there came another surprise: hardly anticipated by any among the observers, the PDM emerged as the main beneficiary of the frustrated voters and retained its status as the official opposition with a resounding success. The party under its president McHenry Venaani had a name change only during the ongoing legislative period in an effort to leave behind the association of being a pro-South African and predominantly white party, which already in the first elections campaigned as the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA). It now scored way above the widely held expectations and more than tripled its share from five to 16 seats.

Five of the other parties secured two seats each. Three more managed to get one seat, to fill the total number of 96 Members of Parliament. Since the electoral system is strictly proportional, some 8,500 votes were enough to obtain a seat. SWAPO is now left with 63 seats (one short of a two-third-majority, which is required for constitutional changes), and can of course continue to govern comfortably. But of less comfort is the punishment. It also affects a number of loyal party cadres, who ranked lower on the electoral list. These include some deputy ministers and struggle veterans. While the re-elected Head of State Hage Geingob (at the same time the party president) has the privilege to appoint an additional eight MPs without voting rights, he faces some tough choices. Who will be brought back at his mercy, and who will be left out in the cold. Does he pursue a co-optation strategy or does he reward those most loyal to him? He has time to think about it. The new MPs will only be sworn in together with the Cabinet he appoints from the MPs on 21 March 2020.

By then also the newly elected 33 MPs from ten opposition parties will have to make up their mind if they use the newly gained strength to form any meaningful alliance. Among them are a number of very young “born free”. So far, opposition politics in Namibia did not deserve the name. Parties were small, had hardly any appealing alternative party programmes to offer and mainly followed their ethnic-regional particularistic courses. With enemies like these, SWAPO did not need any friends. This might change for the first time, with a strong PDM opposition and a new LPM. Together they already have about the same number of seats the total opposition occupied before.  This could encourage the formation of alliances to shape new discourses. So far, opposition parties hardly ever created some visibility during parliamentary debates. As of next year, they might make life much more difficult for the dominant party and thereby use the opportunity to appeal to even more voters.

The presidential elections

More challenging than the party competition was the direct election of Namibia’s next president. In a surprise move, the SWAPO member Panduleni Itula registered as an “independent” candidate, using a loophole in the country’s electoral act. He adamantly claimed to have the right to challenge the official party candidate Hage Geingob as an alternative and remained defiant to leave SWAPO. He used the analogy of a family feud, which still allows you to stay in the family while seeking solutions. SWAPO-internal factionalism seemed a motivating dimension for this unusual constellation. Itula has not disclosed the sources funding his campaign. Early voting results published ahead of election day – another absurdity of Namibia’s democracy – were too close to comfort for Geingob, with Itula neck-to-neck. Not surprisingly so, President Geingob was not amused.

Came election day, Itula did remarkably well. In the two regions with the highest degree of urbanisation (Khomas and Erongo in central Namibia) he even received with close to 50% most votes. In the end, he had 29.4% compared with Geingob’s 56.3%. For the latter, this bordered to a humiliation. After all, Geingob was not only the first presidential candidate who scored less votes than the party, but he lost about a third of those who gave him the confidence and trust five years ago. Interestingly so, however, the votes of Geingob and Itula added up to Geingob’s score in 2014. This means that despite the success of the PDM, its presidential candidate Venaani did not receive more votes than in the last elections, but even had to share some with the new candidate Swartbooi, who came in fourth. Obviously, the PDM benefitted as party from protest voters, who were voting for Itula as “independent” SWAPO candidate and were unwilling to vote for SWAPO as party with Geingob as candidate. Rather, they opted for other parties to voice their dissatisfaction.

Among the questions now is how Itula will seek to position himself. And how Geingob will handle the maverick. Assuming that he stands for a party faction mainly from the Northern regions, his dismissal from the party by means of disciplinary procedures will not solve the problem. On the other hand, surprisingly so, Geingob maintained the highest percentage of votes in the very northern regions, which are believed to be the home to an anti-Geingob party faction. One reason for this might be, that similarly to Zimbabwe and some of the areas in South Africa, the rural population remains more loyal to the erstwhile liberation movement. This would mean that voting remains also in favour of the official party candidate. But Geingob’s authority is certainly weakened. In a first statement ahead of the official election result he tweeted that he has heard the people. The question remains, if he is also willing or able to listen, or if his dented ego will provoke him to display more authoritarian tendencies. So far, he has not been known for dealing well with criticism.

Contested voting procedures

If credibility and legitimacy are key, the Electoral Commission (ECN) would have been well advised to avoid previous mistakes. In 2014 Namibia was the first African country to make use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) delivered by India. In violation of the electoral law, these had no paper trails. Despite a court ruling, this was not corrected since then.

As investigative journalists disclosed in October 2019, the ECN had “borrowed” SWAPO four EVMs for party internal election purposes in 2017. These had gone missing. The news strengthened the already existing reservations regarding the voting process. Itula and some parties have strongly objected to the use of EVMs. The electoral tribunal reserved judgment over complaints for Monday, two days ahead of the elections. This made it a foregone conclusion that instead of postponing the elections, these would be held after dismissal of the objections launched.

The ECN has claimed that in the case of a dispute over the results, there will be a paper trail recording the votes cast. A post mortem paper trail documenting voting, however, is different from a paper trail for the voter to see that the vote was registered properly for the party/candidate s/he voted for. Not surprisingly so, both Itula, but also the PDM and other parties, have despite the surprisingly good results already announced that they will object to their recognition. All international observer missions have, in contrast, testified that the elections were free and fair and gave them their thumbs up. It seems that the final act is not yet over and that the courts will have a say.

And the winner is?

Despite the setbacks SWAPO remained the dominant party. But there was a markedly if not dramatic reversed trend for the first time in 30 years. For both the party and its presidential candidate the scores declined massively. The increased appeals by President Geingob to national unity indicated already during the campaign trail that the “One Namibia one nation” mantra has shown signs of erosion. Currently, “unity in diversity” seems to be further from reality than at any given time since Independence. Tirades in the social media show a disrespect for those in power of hitherto unknown proportions. For the first time SWAPO’s presidential candidate garnered less votes than the party. This does not only dent the ego of the job incumbent, but weakens Geingob’s authority during his second term in office. It will also influence the decisions over his succession as party president and head of state.

Itula might have well created an example copied soon on the local and regional government levels. Already now a former SWAPO Youth League leader and member of the party has announced that he will campaign in a few months for the vote in the Windhoek municipality elections as candidate for the office of mayor. More such “centrifugal” tendencies might emerge as long as SWAPO leadership remains an “old men’s” club (with a few elderly women at their side). As for SWAPO, in the light of the mind-boggling dimensions of the fisheries fraud, which includes officials and political office bearers on the highest echelons, a moral-ethical renewal is a precondition to regain credibility. The motto of the liberation movement, maintained as party, has been “solidarity, freedom, justice”. If no political will to follow such values will be visible soon, the decline might continue. The people had enough of promises without delivery. They expect good governance more than continued heroic struggle narratives, while “a luta continua” translates into “the looting continues”.

Namibia’s political stability has so far been vested in the dominance of SWAPO in a de facto one-party-state. Those opposing such hegemony engaged in an uphill battle. The inroads they made for the first time should not be side-lined by manipulations of the election results or other manoeuvres. After all, democratic governance means respect for the will of the people. It makes democracy the winner, not a party.


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


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