Swapo not used to competition

Political violence has reared its head in northern Namibia’s political heartland of Owambo, where a new Namibian political party, the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP), is contesting a local election against the ruling party, Swapo.

Although the election is to choose councillors only for the newly declared town of Omuthiya, its outcome is widely seen as an indication of the future of Namibian politics, with Swapo facing a credible challenge in its political heartland for the first time since it came to power.

The RDP was formed late last year by former Swapo stalwart Hidipo Hamutenya and other like-minded ruling-party dissidents frustrated with a ruling party they felt was failing to address Namibia’s most pressing problems, including a collapsing health and education system and rising rural poverty.

The campaign for the 1 600 Omuthiya votes has been characterised by violence and intimidation, all blamed on Swapo supporters. Caught by surprise at the level of support for the RDP, Swapo has taken to holding its rallies at the same time and in the same place as RDP rallies.

The violence has included one fatal shooting and several stabbings, as well as attacks on RDP members and their property. This prompted the Namibian police to deny Swapo permission to hold parallel rallies—a first for Swapo, which has grown used to having things its own way in the past 18 years.

Intemperate public statements by prominent leaders have also fanned the flames.
President Hifikepunye Pohamba, who is usually moderate, called his opponents “Judas Iscariots” and traitors. More hot-headed Swapo organisers called for boycotts of businesses owned by RDP supporters, refusing them access to water and blacklisting them from government tenders.

Graham Hopwood, of the Institute of Public Policy Research, said that talk of traitors—a common theme among Swapo hardliners—called into question the national leadership’s commitment to true democracy. “It’s a very worrying trend that calls for a new style of leadership, a commitment to statesmanship rather than petty politicking,” Hopwood said.

Last week, the RDP accused Pohamba and Pendukeni Ithana-Iivula, who is Swapo secretary general, Justice Minister as well as Attorney General, of being “deadly silent on the provocation and intimidation that may lead to violence, threatening our much-cherished peace and stability”.

While the RDP was not expected to poll more than 20% support in Omuthiya, Swapo appears to be more worried about another coming local election in nearby Eenhana, where the RDP has been attracting thousands to its rallies.

Eenhana is the capital of the Ohangwena region, Namibia’s most densely populated. A string of political victories here could lead to an end to Swapo’s two-thirds majority in Parliament, analysts say.

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