Swapo takes easy victory

Neil Ford

Spotlight Namibia

Unlike some of its African neighbours, the relatively young country of Namibia is stable and secure, but lacks a robust opposition in parliament

Windhoek Parliament

© Harald Süpfle CC by SA 2.5

As Namibia approaches the 25th anniversary of its independence, the ruling South West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo) shows no sign of losing its grip on power. It won an easy victory in the 28 November legislative and presidential elections, cementing its quarter century in power. The party continues to attract support for its leading role in winning independence from South Africa in 1990 but, unlike political parties in many other African countries in a similar position, it has not interfered in the electoral process in order to maintain its grip over Namibian politics.

Given previous election results in the country, the victory of Swapo candidate Hage Geingob in the presidential poll was a foregone conclusion. The man who had served as Prime Minister for a total of 14 years took 86.7 per cent of the vote, with the remaining 13.3 per cent shared among eight other candidates and turnout at a fairly healthy 71.8 per cent. Geingob, who will take up his new position on 21 March, is only the third President in the country’s independent history, following in the footsteps of Sam Nujoma and Hifikepunye Pohamba (see page 26 for more on Pohamba). The former ruled from 1990 until 2005, while Pohamba was required to stand down after serving the maximum two five-year terms allowed under the new constitution.

In the parliamentary election, Swapo took 80 per cent of the vote, up from 75.3 per cent in the 2009 poll. The increase was largely due to a collapse in the vote for what had previously been the main opposition party, the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP), whose share of the vote fell from 11.3 per cent to 3.5 per cent. It was overtaken by the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), which secured 4.8 per cent in this year’s election. The Namibian Economic Freedom Fighters, which was set up recently in an attempt to replicate the success of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa, attracted just 0.4 per cent of the vote on its platform of mine nationalisation. Swapo was originally a communist party but, in common with many other far-left ruling parties in other parts of Africa, it has moved to the centre and now supports private ownership, enterprise and investment.

Under the country’s system of proportional representation, Swapo took 77 out of the 96 seats on offer, roughly in line with the 54 of 72 seats it won in the 2009 election for what was then a smaller National Assembly. The DTA gained five seats and the RDP three, while the President is entitled to appoint a further six members to the lower house of parliament. The 26 members of the upper house, known as the National Council, are chosen by regional councils rather than direct voting.

The election was the first entirely electronic poll to be held in Africa, with a choice of buttons rather than ballot papers placed in voting booths. Four opposition parties had challenged the introduction of the system in the Namibian High Court two days before the election, on the grounds that the lack of a paper trail would ease interference, but their appeal was rejected. Despite their objections, all 16 parties registered to take part in the parliamentary election participated on the day itself.

Following a series of corruption allegations, many analysts had predicted that Swapo’s share of the vote would fall as Namibians expressed their outrage at the ballot box. There have been reports that land has been sold below market value to people connected with leading politicians. However, the lack of a strong opposition party appears to have strengthened Swapo’s position, while the party’s policy of providing free access to primary education continues to attract widespread support.

All foreign observers declared the election free and fair, although they did report some technical problems, mainly as a result of polling officers’ inexperience with electronic voting. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation ranks Namibia as the sixth best governed country in Africa and its political system enjoys a positive international reputation. However, although undoubtedly democratic, the political system would function better if there was a strong opposition party to challenge the government.

Namibia was one of the last African countries to gain independence. It was ruled by South Africa, initially under a League of Nations mandate, after Germany lost it in World War I. Then, in the face of international opposition, Swapo and other groups fought a guerrilla war against South African forces, but were unsuccessful until Apartheid began to crumble in South Africa itself. Even then, it took another four years for sovereignty of Walvis Bay, which is Namibia’s main port, to be transferred from South Africa to Namibia.

Relations with South Africa are fairly strong, as both Swapo and the African National Congress are viewed as victors in the war against Apartheid. Namibia is also an enthusiastic member of SADC – the Southern African Development Community – and is keen to cultivate stronger ties with its landlocked neighbours in the east.

The government of Namibia continues to deal with the fallout of the colonial era, as much of the best farmland is still owned by the tiny white minority in what is an incredibly arid country.

Geingob and Swapo are committed to continuing the peaceful transfer of land to the bulk of the population, which has taken place very slowly to date, partly because the government has pursued the same policy of reconciliation with the white minority as South Africa. Under the terms of the constitution, the transfer of property to landless people can only be made where farmers voluntarily sell their land to the government.

Perhaps the country’s biggest challenge over the next decade will be the provision of housing. Rising property prices have prevented many poorer urban families from buying or renting a home, so informal housing settlements have begun to spread out around Namibian towns. Geingob has pledged to spend N$45 billion (US$4.1 billion) on the construction of 185,000 new houses over the next 18 years. Whether his government achieves this may determine whether it maintains such a high level of popular support.

About the author:

Neil Ford is an independent consultant and journalist, focusing on international affairs, particularly in Africa and Asia


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