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Elections in Namibia expose rift in SWAPO

Cristina Krippahl
November 25, 2019

Namibians go to the polls on Wednesday to elect a new president and parliament. While nobody expects the ruling party to lose, the days when ''SWAPO was the nation and the nation was SWAPO'' might be numbered.

A banner calling for a vote for SWAPO's presidential candidate
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Gao Lei

''This is a very exciting and probably politically a landmark election,'' says political analyst Ndumba Kamwanyah, referring to the emergence of an independent candidate from within the ranks of the governing South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), which has thrown the party into turmoil. 78-year-old President Hage Geingob's unexpected challenger is a dentist called Panduleni Itula, who has refused to resign his SWAPO membership despite threats that he may be expelled.

SWAPO has been in power since independence in 1990. But recently it has been shaken by major corruption scandals which forced two cabinet ministers to resign. The ruling party is also beset by a major economic crisis that has led to increased discontent throughout the country, especially among the young, 46% of whom are unemployed. Kamwanyah, a senior lecturer at the University of Namibia, believes the crisis has contributed to the emergence of two factions within SWAPO, unlleashing a power struggle which will ultimately lead to greater political dynamics. ''Although it is not said, we think that one of the factions is behind the independent candidate,'' the analyst told DW.

Namibian President Hage Geingob giving a talk
Namibian President Hage Geingob is running for a second five-year-termImage: picture-alliance/Xinhua/W. Changwei

The main problem: a weak opposition

SWAPO does not run any danger of losing the November 27 general elections. It and might even be able to save its two-thirds-majority in parliament, many analysts believe. ''But, for the first time since independence, SWAPO might get less votes than it has before,'' said Henning Melber, senior associate at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, Sweden. The German-Namibian analyst pointed out that in the last election, in 2014, SWAPO won 80% of the vote, its highest share ever, while Geingob was elected president with 87% of the vote. This time, though, ''everyone agrees that he will certainly get much less. For the first time since independence, the president is likely to get less votes than his party,'' Melber told DW.

Disaffection has fuelled support for Itula, 62, who could attract votes from both the opposition and SWAPO members  displeased with Geingob. Thus he takes over a role which should, by rights, belong to the official opposition. ''That is the main problem: that we have a very weak opposition,'' said Kamwanyah. There are number of factors that explain this situation almost three decades after independence, including a lack of funds and the difficulty of smaller parties in campaigning in such a huge, although sparsely populated, country. But the principal reason is how history shaped Namibia. ''I think SWAPO was a historically unique case, because it was recognized by the United Nations in the mid-1970s as the sole and authentic representative of the Namibian people,'' analyst Melber said. Thus SWAPO gained a ''monopoly over the political culture in the country,'' which it used to spread the notion that ''SWAPO is the nation and the nation is SWAPO,'' Melber explained.

Dries trees in the Namibian desert
Drought is causing food shortages in NamibiaImage: picture alliance/Bildagentur-online

A crisis which needs to be addressed

Candidates from the opposition parties accordingly stand little to no chance to make headway. McHenry Venaani, of the Popular Democratic Movement (PDM), a party still strongly connoted with its former affiliation with apartheid South Africa, is unlikely to win more than the five percent of the votes cast for him in 2014.

Nevertheless, parties that concentrate on pressing issues are finding increased support among a population hard it by an economic crisis resulting from drought, climate change and a drop in commodity prices, but also mismanagement and corruption. A case in point is the Landless People's Movement led by Bernadus Swartbooi, which is focused on land expropriation in Namibia, a country that has one of the world's highest inequality rates. To this day, approximately 70% of Namibia's farmland is owned by whites. Socially disadvantaged black or colored citizens own only 16% of the land.

First female presidential candidate

A delegation of Herero and Nama in Berlin led by Esther Muinjangue
Esther Muinjangue (left) is the first female candidate for the Namibian presidencyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

The election has another debut: the first female presidential candidate in the country's history. Esther Muinjangue is a member of the Herero ethnic group and one of the leading figures fighting for reparations for the slaughter by German troops of tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people who rose up against colonial rule in 1904-08. She heads the National Unity Democratic Organization (NUDO). ''Having now, for the first time, a woman leading a small political party underlines symbolically that women are advancing in Namibian society,'' Melber said.

While it is unlikely the small opposition parties will register significant gains, a weakened president could feel compelled to attend more thoroughly to issues which voters feel have been neglected. With a population of 2.45 million, Namibia is one of the richest countries in Africa. It has vast uranium and diamond reserves and vibrant fishing and tourism industries. But wealth has yet to trickle down to the general population. Analyst Henning Melber is not optimistic: ''I must say that the immediate future for ordinary people looks rather bleak. That SWAPO is reelected is basically the result of there being hardly any other options.''