This week, Namibians voted for a new president and Parliament in the country’s sixth general election since independence in 1990.
The South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) has won every single one of those elections (although results of the most recent poll are yet to be released, no one is expecting any upsets).
Every. Single. One. This makes Namibia, for all its impressive democratic credentials, a one-party state in everything but name.
But Namibia is no outlier in the region. Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe are all governed by the liberation movement that ushered in their independence, whereas in South Africa the party that helped to end apartheid is still in charge.
In each of these countries, these liberation movements attracted more than half of the popular vote in their most recent parliamentary elections. Even the least popular among them, Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF, was returned to power with a parliamentary majority of 52.35%.
According to the University of Pretoria’s Henning Melber, whose research focuses on Southern Africa’s liberation movements, their enduring appeal is no accident. Instead, it is a product of a concerted, decades-long effort to conflate the party with the state. “Liberation movements in Southern Africa cultivated a heroic narrative translating into a patriotic history: we liberated you, therefore you owe us,” he says. “Based on such liberation gospel, they occupied the political commanding heights and used this initial dominance to promote the equation that the party is the government and the government is the state.”
Not that their dominance is unchallenged. A new generation — the so-called “born-frees”, who did not grow up during their country’s respective struggles — does not feel the debt of gratitude to their liberators quite so strongly, and is much more likely to punish the ruling party for service delivery failures. They are, however, also more likely not to vote, which can have the effect of reinforcing the strength of a liberation movement.
And when their power is genuinely under threat, some liberation movements have resorted to alleged electoral fraud to keep themselves in power. This is most notable in Zimbabwe, where successive elections have been marred by credible allegations of electoral fraud and vote-rigging; and recently in Mozambique, where opposition parties and civil society groups have forcefully rejected the results of the October general election.
These are not tactics that Swapo will have to resort to any time soon. It is the region’s most dominant liberation movement — with an 80% share of the parliamentary vote in 2014, and 87% for its presidential candidate Hage Geingob — and there is currently no national opposition with the credibility to mount a serious challenge.
That does not mean, however, that Namibia’s population cannot make its feelings heard, with Swapo predicted to suffer a significant drop in support.
“[These] elections will for the first time mark a turning point,” said Melber. “While there is no meaningful opposition in sight, both Swapo and its presidential candidate Hage Geingob will be punished for the empty promises and the lack of delivery.”