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18 Nov 2004 00:00
Namibia’s South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) is set for another landslide election victory in what has been a dour election, with low-key campaigning.
With only a sprinkling of barely legible posters on lamp posts, election paraphernalia has been in short supply in the sparsely populated country where the ruling party’s liberation credentials still hold sway.
Incidents of intimidation hardly registered on the radar screen.
Less than 48 hours before polls opened on Monday, three political parties held rallies within walking distance of each other in the township of Katutura, on the fringes of the capital, Windhoek, which has the largest concentration of urban voters.
The fledgling Congress of Democrats, uncontaminated by the colonial background of the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, ventured into Swapo heartland in the so-called O-region — Omusati, Oshana, Oshikoto, Ohangwena — in former Ovamboland, which accounts for 56% of the population.
It is here that apartheid repression was harshest, and where Swapo’s message, that it must be credited with getting “the casspirs out of the country” continues to strike a chord. The overriding factor, however, is that politics in Namibia is still dictated by tribal loyalties.
At its inception Swapo was called the Ovamboland People’s Organisation, and it continues to cash in on Ovambo votes. The United Democratic Front holds the Damara bloc, while the National Democratic Organisation targets the Herero.
Tribalism aside, Swapo’s door-to-door mobilisation has been far superior to that of its rivals.
University of Namibia academic Panuel Kaapama said: “Some parties did not even campaign or have a single meeting in the north [Ovamboland]. Swapo was the only party campaigning countrywide. Turnout at rallies discouraged the opposition.”
Media watchers point out that the ruling party also released three times as many statements as the fragmented opposition parties, which it slammed as lazy and ineffective.
The opposition party manifestos failed to distinguish their policies and priorities from those of Swapo, proposing only different methods of implementation. No funding details were given.
Political commentators and a phalanx of election observers agree that the election campaign was conducted in an amicable fashion. “This election has been a watershed. There’s been no smear campaign and it may indicate that politics in Namibia is maturing,” said Doris Weissnar of the National Institute for Democracy.
The residential election (seven candidates) and National Assembly election (nine parties) were not without minor hitches, but there was no evidence of electoral malpractice. The country showcased an innovative electronic voters’ register at polling stations that helped speed up balloting, especially on the second day of polling when queues formed despite heavy rain across the country.
However, opposition parties and civil society groups have cast doubt on the independence of the Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN), appointed for a five-year term by the president and located in the office of the prime minister. The ECN has 20 permanent staff members and relies on the deployment of civil servants at election time.
“The ECN is operationally and institutionally not independent,” said Phil ya Nangoloh of the National Society for Human Rights. “The government is the largest employer and provider of tenders. In Namibia people respect Swapo more than the government.”
Opposition parties have already signalled their intention to push for electoral reform that would include provisions for transparent ballot boxes, voting on one day, the counting of ballots at polling stations and the auditing of ballot papers in the presence of party agents.
As in other countries in the Southern African Development Community, party funding is a bone of contention. Only parties represented in the 72-seat National Assembly received a proportional share of the R15,9-million allocated from state coffers for electioneering, R12,2-million of which went to Swapo.
Political parties have to submit audited annual financial reports to Parliament on how this money was spent, but so far none has opened its books to public scrutiny. The auditor general has formally lodged a complaint of non-compliance, forcing Parliament to resolve in June that new rules will be unveiled after the election.
Media coverage, too, has been the subject of much acrimony. The Namibian Broadcasting Corporation allocated 60% of election coverage proportionally to parties in Parliament, while 40% was shared by all parties contesting the election — giving the lion’s share of airtime to Swapo.
Responding to the media and public funding controversies, Prime Minister Theo-Ben Gurirab said that “principles of proportionality” were not unique to Namibia.
The 2004 elections will be remembered as President Sam Nujoma’s exit from parliamentary politics. As testimony to his popularity, his face was emblazoned on the National Assembly election ballot by virtue of being the Swapo president until 2007, while his successor, Hifikepunye Pohamba, appeared on the presidential ballot paper.
Another Swapo veteran who will retire on Namibian Independence Day, March 21 next year, is Herman Toivo ja Toivo, a former Robben Islander who joined the African National Congress in the 1950s before becoming one of Swapo’s founding fathers.
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