By Prince Kurupati
The South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO) which has ruled Namibia since independence in 1990 retained power once again as it won both the presidential race and the highest number of seats in the National Assembly. Despite the victory, however, there was a significant decrease in support.
Hage Geingob, SWAPO’s presidential candidate received 56 percent of the vote down from the 87 percent that he won with in the previous election. In the legislative vote, SWAPO won 63 seats out of the 96 seats. In the previous election, SWAPO had won 77 seats. The decrease in the number of seats means that SWAPO has now lost its two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.
SWAPO and Hage Geingob’s ‘poor’ electoral performance (in comparison with previous elections) is by no means a surprise considering Namibia’s current political, economic and social landscape. For the first time since independence, SWAPO was competing against a strong force in the presidential race, the corruption scandal which emerged in the run-up to the general election did not help, the economic recession, emergence of a new voter base (young people born after 1990) and the questions surrounding the electronic voter machines all suggested that SWAPO was going to have a hard time in convincing voters something which is now evident considering the election results.
In the presidential race, Hage Geingob found himself in an unfamiliar scenario. Instead of competing with a candidate from the opposition parties, he was competing with a man from his party. Panduleni Itula exploited a loophole in both the party constitution and the country’s electoral act to campaign for the presidential post as an independent candidate though he was still a SWAPO card-carrying member. Using an analogy of a family feud which allows one to stay in the family despite having problems with other family members, Itula in his campaign stated that he had the right to challenge the official party candidate as an alternative while refusing to leave the party. Itula successfully managed to win a considerable amount of votes which enabled him to garner 29 percent of the vote coming in the second position while McHenry Venaani the leader of the official opposition party came in third with .3 percent.
Itula’s strong performance in the election showed one thing, that is, there are many people in the country who love the revolutionary party SWAPO but have a strong distaste to some individuals in the party, in this instance Hage Geingob. Considering that Geingob won 87 percent of the vote in 2014 and only managed 56 percent in the recent election, it means that those who decided against backing him simply took the decision to vote for Itula. Geingob, therefore, does have a difficult job of trying to win back the support that he had in the past during the next 5 years.
The corruptions scandal which emerged in the run-up to the general election did not help matters to SWAPO or Hage Geingob. Days before Election Day, a joint investigation by the Icelandic magazine Stundin, the Icelandic state broadcaster RUV and the Al Jazeera Investigative Unit led to the resignation and arrest of two government ministers on allegations of corruption and money laundering in the Namibian fishing industry. The implicated ministers were the minister of justice Sacky Shanghala and the minister of fisheries and marine resources, Bernhard Esau. The two were accused of taking bribes in return for giving Samherji, one of Iceland’s largest fishing companies preferential access to Namibia’s rich fishing grounds.
Others implicated in the corruption scandal are Thorsteinn Mar Baldvinsson, the CEO of Samherji who has since stepped down from his post pending an independent investigation and the chairman of the Namibia state-owned fishing company James Hatuikulipi who has since resigned.
Another huge factor which played a part in the election is the economic recession. Namibia for a long time has enjoyed steady economic growth. However, the country was hit hard by successive droughts which led to economic recession lasting for three years. The recession’s implications mainly job cuts hugely affected the SWAPO brand as most attributed the ever-rising unemployment rates to the incompetence of SWAPO to devise ways of dealing with the recession. The recession years coincided with the global price falls for uranium, diamonds and other hard commodities which are Namibia’s highest export earners.
A significant proportion of the people who cast their votes on 27 November were youth. The recession affected the youths mostly as many companies froze recruitment. This led high school and tertiary graduates to add to the growing number of the unemployed. Dissatisfied with the prevailing environment, a high number of the youths sought to use the election as a vehicle of change by simply voting for change. The importance of unemployment as a factor in the Namibian election is exposed by the latest Afrobarometer survey in which voters stated that unemployment (54 percent) was the most important deciding factor in the election.
The missing electronic voting machines also made the government in power (SWAPO) to be regarded with suspicion by many voters. According to an investigative piece written by Sonja Smith, Sacky Shanghala, one of SWAPO’s election agents during the SWAPO Party Elders Council’s 6th elective congress held at Outapi in July 2017 borrowed electronic voting machines at the Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN) offices to use them at the congress before returning them afterwards. However, on his way to the congress venue, Shanghala lost some of the machines. Reports state that four machines were lost but one was found by a member of the public who returned it to the Otjiwarongo Police Station. The machine was subsequently returned to the owner, that is, ECN. To date, the other three machines are yet to be found.
Speaking on the matter of the missing electronic voting machines, Norman Tjombe, a human rights lawyer said that the disappearance of the machines raises suspicions that the election could be rigged hence putting into doubt the integrity and legitimacy of the outcome. “It is the most serious attack on our democracy that such an important device is stolen. Of course, it is the type of device stolen so as to rig the elections. It is not stolen for any other purpose.” Tjombe’s sentiments were echoed by many others who expressed doubt that SWAPO genuinely lost the machines.
To conclude, it can be noted therefore that SWAPO and Hage Geingob lost a significant proportion of votes during the 27 November general election owing largely to the above factors. Essentially, what this, therefore, means going forward is that SWAPO needs to work hard to regain the lost support by correcting its mistakes. For as long as the above factors remain a feature in the prevailing environment, SWAPO will likely continue to lose more support threatening its hold on power.