Namibia: On the Brink of a One-Man Democracy?

SWAPO presidential candidate Hage Geingob won Namibia’s recent general election with a landslide 86 per cent of the vote. But is the country on the verge of becoming a one-man democracy?

On 28 November close to 900,000 Namibians of a registered electorate of some 1.2 million (a little more than half of Namibia’s total population, estimated at 2.3 million) voted in the country’s fifth parliamentary and presidential elections since Independence. The result was predictable, though the extent of the dominance of the former liberation movement SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation) was not. SWAPO has secured well above a two-thirds majority in every election since 1994, but this time the result crossed the 80 per cent mark with the party’s presidential candidate, Hage Geingob, winning a whopping 86 per cent of the vote.

This was not for lack of competition. Another fifteen political parties campaigned for votes. Of these, nine managed to secure a total of 19 of the 96 seats in the National Assembly for the next five-year legislative period. The opposition is more divided than ever before and this underlines its weakness. President elect Geingob, who will enter office on 21 March 2015, scored bigger than his predecessors Sam Nujoma and Hifikepunye Pohamba against eight other contenders from the minority parties. More than ever before, Namibia’s political sphere is dominated by a single party. ‘SWAPO is the nation and the nation is SWAPO’, a slogan from the struggle days, now embodies the dominant if not exclusive political culture.

Undemocratic democracy

A question which cannot be reliably answered is the extent to which parts of the Namibian electorate refused to vote. Over-ambitiously, the Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN) decided to use electronic voting machines, becoming the first African country to do so in a general election. This not only provoked suspicion of manipulation, it also caused an embarrassing logistical and technological disaster. Thousands of voters were reportedly unable to vote due to machine failure, despite queuing—often for the best part of a day, if not longer. Indeed, some polling stations remained open until the next morning while voters waited through the night.

What does this mean? Strictly speaking, a considerable number of Namibians were denied their fundamental right to make a choice, casting a shadow over Namibia’s status as a democracy. While this may not have decisively affected the outcome, it makes it impossible to assess how many among those registered to vote had actually made a political decision not to. By comparative standards, 72 per cent turnout seems high, but this figure is actually lower than participation in previous parliamentary and presidential elections in Namibia.

President Geingob will move into State House with even greater executive powers than his predecessors. In August 2014 the SWAPO majority in the National Assembly voted for far-reaching constitutional amendments which further consolidated the party’s control over state affairs. They bolstered the power of an already strong executive president pushing Namibia’s de facto one-party democracy closer to a one-person democracy. How this will play out in the coming years will depend on Geingob’s willingness to use—or abuse—presidential powers.

Already the signs of democratic authoritarianism suggest that while the country fulfills all the formal criteria of a democracy (multi-party state, regular elections, democratic constitutional principles, civil liberties, a fairly independent judiciary combined with independent media and freedom of speech), the playing field is far from level. SWAPO is the only party with both efficient machinery and financial backing (notably through massive donations from the private sector which benefits from business with the government). Among other examples, this allowed it to buy considerable airtime from the state-owned Namibian Broadcasting Company (NBC) to transmit its final political rally live into homes across the country.

Unfinished business

But business as usual remains a risky endeavor. Grassroots protests over the abuse of power for self-enrichment by a tiny elite in government and the offices of state is visibly growing. Awareness of the links between the private sector and party machinery by political or family connections is also increasing—the terms ‘fat cats’ and ‘tenderpreneurs’ are common slang and have anything but positive connotations. Massive social inequalities have reduced little since Independence. Rather, alongside the old elite which benefitted from the Apartheid minority regime emerged a new one whose members prosper as a result of SWAPO’s selectively applied ‘affirmative action’—a euphemism for clientelism. While the ownership of political power changed, the class structure remains intact.

SWAPO’s slogan from the struggle days, ‘Solidarity, Freedom, Justice’ (note the absence of equality) remained after the seizure of political power a hollow reminder of what came before. Meanwhile, confronted with the increasing and unashamed greed of the new elite, frustration over their dismal failure to live up to the promises associated with Independence is growing among ordinary people and among the younger generation, including those politically active in SWAPO. The party also struggles with internal rivalry and factionalism, in part fueled by inter-ethnic power struggles. After all, given its dominance and control over the political and administrative levers of society, access to power and thereby to the trough is necessarily filtered through the party.

Upon moving into office, President Geingob will face a difficult task. At 73 years of age he might be the last of the first generation to hold the highest office. He joined the anti-colonial organisation in its founding days and was in exile for more than a quarter of a century. While celebrated as a unifier (he is the first president-elect not from the dominant Owambo-speaking population group from the Northern region, which might explain additional votes from other population groups), he has a lot on his checklist to achieve this goal. Despite the overwhelming majority secured by the party and the personal power vested in his office, it remains to be seen to what extent he can translate his own political success into one for all Namibians.

Henning Melber joined SWAPO in 1974. He was Director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU) in Windhoek, Research Director of The Nordic Africa Institute and Executive Director of The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, both in Uppsala. He is Senior Adviser to the Foundation and Extraordinary Professor at the Universities of Pretoria and of the Free State in Bloemfontein. He is the author of Understanding Namibia: The Trials of Independence.


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