NAMIBIA goes to the polls Friday to elect a new president and parliament, with the ruling South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) favourite to retain power.
Hifikepunye Pohamba, 79, who has been president since 2005, is stepping down after the two terms allowed by the constitution.
In a busy year for Africa’s voters, Namibia’s will be the 15th election of 2014 on the continent; counting referendums, presidential, and parliamentary polls.
Namibia will also leapfrog Cape Verde, to hold Africa’s first full electronic vote (e-vote). Cape Verde has been developing an e-vote system.
Opposition parties had launched an 11th-hour challenge to the use of the Indian-made e-voting machines, which will aid the casting and counting of ballots, claiming the lack of a paper trail could open the door to vote rigging. They wanted the election delayed until February 2015.
The Windhoek High Court dismissed the application on Wednesday, leaving the door open for the election to go ahead as planned. However, while Windhoek High Court judge Kobus Miller tossed out the opposition application, he conceded that voting has two components: voting and verification.
Namibians will choose 96 members of the national assembly and one of nine presidential candidates, ranging from the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters to the white minority Republican Party.
Around 1.2 million Namibians are eligible to cast their ballots at nearly 4,000 electronic voting stations across the vast desert nation.
Geingob all but in
But there is only one likely winner.
Current SWAPO Prime Minister Hage Geingob, 73, has run on a platform of “peace, stability and prosperity” and is sure to become the new president.
SWAPO was forged from the embers of the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle.
According to pollsters, the party remains hugely popular.
The question will be whether discontent over social and economic issues will eat into SWAPO’s support, eroding its 75% haul garnered in 2009.
Single mother of four Gredula Nashima, 39, said she will vote for SWAPO again this time, but wants to see change.
Sitting in the dirt outside her zinc panel shack by a pile of bones, she talks about unemployment, poor housing and a lack of electricity as she artfully, but violently butchers cows heads with an axe.
Hacking and smashing at the skulls, she renders the meat to small strips that are hung on a clothesline to be dried and sold, or made into “kapana”—slices of grilled meat. The leftover bones are sold to a fertiliser company.
“We want to see our leader, whoever will be in the seat, to look at our living conditions, our roads are not tarred, but we also want help for those who have their own businesses,” she said.
Like many Namibians she remains sceptical about opposition parties and their motives.
“I don’t know their intentions and their objectives. If I did know I would be with them,” she said.
Big tent party
Like many of Africa’s liberation movements, SWAPO has become a big-tent party that spans the political spectrum and often seems more involved with intra-party politics than voters.
Supporters say that allows for continuity, but critics say it brings stasis.
A recent Afrobarometer poll showed nearly two thirds of voters believe the government is doing a bad job creating jobs, fighting corruption and improving living standards for the poor.
Economic growth is forecast at around four percent for this year, yet one in four people is out of work, according to the government’s narrow definition.
The economy remains dependent on diamond and uranium mining.
Party acolytes are widely seen hogging government tenders and providing “jobs for comrades”.
Wealth inequalities are stark.
Adri van Tonder, an elegantly dressed non-nonsense Windhoek car dealer, says business is great.
“It’s crazy, if dealers say it is not busy then they are just being lazy.”
Van Tonder said she sells small cars to people working in mining and other industries, but top dollars come from “people from the ministries”—the government elite who buy the sleekest German sedans.
In a bid to be more in touch with voters SWAPO has vowed to put half of party and parliamentary posts in the hands of women.
The “Zebra” list
The party has launched a “zebra” parliamentary list—one man, one woman—to make sure half of parliamentarians are women.
But facing a backlash from sitting male MPs, parliament has also expanded the number of seats to 96 under a constitutional amendment.
If the plan comes to pass, Namibia would move up in the ranks of women-friendly legislatures, closer to Rwanda which holds the world record with women holding 64% of the seats of Parliament.
However, Namibia also bucked the trend in countries like Kenya and Ghana, and did not hold a presidential debate.
Again, like other liberation parties on the continent, SWAPO has won every election since Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990. It’s expected victory will continue the pattern of wins by South Africa’s ANC in April and Mozambiques’ Frelimo in October.
It has been a year where opposition parties flourished only in countries where long-ruling governments that took power after a bush war were not in play. In Malawi in May, Democratic Progressive Party leader Peter Mutharika defeated president Joyce Banda in disputed polls.
In Tunisia in October, the opposition Nidaa Tounes won a majority of the votes, beating the Ennahda Movement that was leading the interim government formed after the 2011 uprising that ousted its strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
In a dramatic illustration of how much difference democracy and term limits make, when Ben Ali was deposed Tunisia had had only two presidents for 55 years - since independence from France in 1956.
Habib Bourguiba was president from 1957 to 1987. He died in office at the age of 96. Ben Ali took over in late 1987. By contrast, in the 24 year of its independence, less than half the period Bourguiba and Ben Ali led Tunisia, Namibia is set to have its third president.
-Reporting by AFP