WINDHOEK – Namibia’s registered 1.3 million voters go to the polls Wednesday in a general election that promises to be far removed from the overwhelming victories enjoyed by former liberation movement SWAPO since independence in the resource-rich southern African country in 1990.
The election of a president and National Assembly members will be keenly watched by powers such as China, which enjoys a uranium monopoly with its control of Rössing Uranium Mine and Husab Uranium on Namibia’s Atlantic Ocean coast. Mining accounts for half of the southern African nation’s foreign exchange earnings.
Foreign interests abound in this sparsely populated nation of about 2.5 million people, with sometimes damaging results. Two cabinet ministers resigned this month after Iceland’s biggest seafood company, Samherji, was accused of paying bribes to Namibian politicians and officials for access to Namibia’s fishing quota, another key economic resource.
The ruling SWAPO has been shaken by the scandal and by the weakening economy, which has shed thousands of jobs. Some 46% of youth are unemployed. Meanwhile more than 700,000 people have registered for drought relief as hunger grows.
In the last election, in 2014, SWAPO won 80% percent of the vote, its highest share ever, while President Hage Geingob won 87% of the presidential vote.
This time the 78-year-old Geingob faces an unexpected challenge in Dr. Panduleni Itula, a dentist. Itula is standing as an independent candidate but retains his SWAPO membership and is expected to grab a chunk of Geingob’s support. Commentators differ on what his impact will be.
Itula has challenged the use of electronic voting machines and has taken the Electoral Commission of Namibia to the country’s independent electoral tribunal over the issue. A ruling is expected on Monday.
He also vows to fight corruption, address unemployment and improve public health and affordable housing.
Other candidates include the official opposition Popular Democratic Movement, led by 42-year-old McHenry Venaani. It has largely been campaigning around the issue of SWAPO’s two-thirds majority in parliament, which Venaani says has fueled impunity and graft.
The Landless People’s Movement led by Bernadus Swartbooi has focused on land expropriation in Namibia, which has one of the world’s highest inequality rates.
Provisional yet unconfirmed counts from special voting that took place at diplomatic missions and for members of the armed forces show Geingob and Itula neck-and-neck in the presidential race, while SWAPO is ahead in the National Assembly race.
SWAPO for the first time will have less support, said political commentator Henning Melber.
“Itula personifies the dissatisfaction among the younger generations and factions inside of SWAPO,” he said. “That he poses as an ‘independent candidate’ while insisting to be SWAPO is an interesting contradiction in terms.”
Unlike in previous elections, “we might see a huge turnout of young people this time around, and if that happens then it will be good news for Itula and bad news for Geingob,” said Ndumba Kamwanyah, a political analyst.
He said an unprecedented runoff election might be needed if no presidential candidate can get over the 50%-plus-one vote threshold on Wednesday.
SWAPO retains much of its popular support and should perform well in the National Assembly election but the presidential vote likely will be split, said Graham Hopwood, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.
“It seems that Itula will attract a youth protest vote, those urban young people who have been left stranded with poor education and no jobs,” he said. “It's difficult to predict just how much support Itula will receive but it will be bigger than opposition parties traditionally get.”
The election will include more than 400,000 voters who were born in or after Namibia gained its independence from South Africa.
Hopwood said he does not expect the fishing quota scandal to have a large impact on the vote, with most people likely having made up their minds before the news broke.
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