The level of uncertainty that surrounded the sixth Namibian elections since the country’s independence in 1990 was unprecedented. Held late in November, the poll combined voting for the country’s president and for the National Assembly.
Two issues dominated the debate until right before election day. The first was that an independent candidate, Panduleni Itula, was expected to split the presidential vote for the ruling party, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo). The second was a major corruption scandal around the allocation of fishing quotas. This erupted two weeks before the poll, and involved the arrest of two cabinet ministers.
A further feature of the poll was the controversy around electronic voting machines. Questions around their efficacy highlighted an erosion of trust in the state apparatus. Even on election day, independent candidate Itula continued to express misgivings about this central feature of the electoral process.
These issues shrouded further reasons for rising discontent in the country. These include staggering unemployment rates, particularly among young people, a persistent economic crisis and gross social inequality. Another conflict-ridden issue is the unresolved land question. These crises are compounded by rising constraints on the state budget.
The election results showed voters registering their demand for dramatic changes. This was most evident in the sharp drop in support for incumbent President Hage Geingob. Five years ago he garnered 87%. This time he scraped through with just 56.3%, helped by voters in the preponderantly rural north, where he could rely on a loyal Swapo power base.
Itula insisted throughout the election campaign that he remained a Swapo member. Using a loophole in the party constitution, Itula and his supporters apparently hoped to tap Swapo support. His candidature reflected a persistent split in the ruling party, which seems to include ethnic resentment against “Damara” Geingob. Itula came in with just under 30%, after a strong showing, particularly in urban areas and among youth, much less though in the populous north.
In the National Assembly, opposition parties, including the newly formed Landless People’s Movement, saw their positions strengthened. The final result gave Swapo 65.5%, just short of a two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution. This was a massive loss of about 15 percentage points against the resounding 80% of 2014. It is the first time that Swapo has dipped below the magic 66% since 1994.
Voter participation also fell, from more than 70% in 2014 to 60% of registered voters.
Swapo’s seemingly unassailable position has been shattered. The outcome of these elections may well go further than a slight erosion of Swapo’s power position. It may lead to a situation where discontent by frustrated voters is channelled into directions other than formal politics. Thus, a latent crisis of legitimacy of the postcolonial state might break into the open.
Trust in tatters
But will the result mean that the government deals with the country’s massive challenges? Besides the long-term issues of persistent gross inequality and the worsening crisis of state finance as well as a bleak economic outlook, these also include the interrelated issues of corruption and transparency in government and politics.
A huge corruption scandal over the allocation of fishing quotas broke only weeks before the elections. “Fishrot” involves culprits from Namibia as well as Angola, Iceland and Norway. It revolves around kickbacks for the allocation of Namibian fishing quotas, which are given out by the responsible line ministry. Among those arrested are two former cabinet ministers.
Corruption in high places is well known. It’s common cause in the country that fishing rights are dished out to people who are not connected to fisheries in any way, only to pass them on for a hefty fee.
The most recent case was unusually dramatic with the arrest of top politicians shortly before the elections. But it’s widely considered to be the tip of the iceberg. Both former ministers were due to be back in the National Assembly after the elections, but have now been removed from the Swapo list.
The corruption cases may well add to the lack of trust in the institutional set-up, which appears severely shaken in the aftermath of the elections.
Prior to the polls, expectations were running high for the independent presidential candidate and for opposition parties. This was particularly true among young urban people.
Publication of the official results engendered not just disappointment but chagrin. One cause was the delay of more than 72 hours in the announcement of the results. This was despite the use of new electronic voting machines, which should have expedited the process. In the event, it increased suspicions about manipulation, adding significantly to these concerns.
The leader of the newly formed Landless People’s Movement, Bernardus Swartbooi, went as far as to call the election results rigged. He also bemoaned the fact that recourse to the justice system appeared to be meaningless, as the courts had in the past repeatedly sided with the electoral commission, as he stressed at a press conference on 28 November where the present author attended.
For the first time since independence, Namibia’s institutional setup has been called into question. Within the system, there is seemingly no chance to appeal against shortcomings or intentional abuse. The unresponsive attitude taken by the electoral commission added to the misgivings. A range of opposition parties have announced they will consider legal action against the election results.
Swapo faces serious challenges. The perennial issue of gross social inequality is articulated in demands for land, not only for farming, but above all for urban housing; the Fishrot scandal has already rekindled workers’ resistance at the coast. The break-up of Swapo’s two-thirds majority has been hailed by the leader of the official opposition, McHenry Venaani of the Popular Democratic Movement, as a chance to “sanitise the debate in the house”. But formal politics also suffers from an inflated cabinet and attendant spoils system, which permeates the state apparatus. Again, this is related to a budgetary crisis in the face of a persistent economic downswing.
Swapo’s clinging to power in this election may prove to be the opening of a much more dramatic period than has been seen over the three decades since the much-lauded transition to independence in 1990.
Reinhart Kössler is a professor of political science at Freiburg University. Kössler has used research funds from the NRF, available through his position as a visiting professor and research associate at the Institute of Reconciliation and Social Justice, The University of the Free State.
This article was first published by The Conversation.