Accelerating decentralisation to improve voter turnout

20 November 2020 | Opinion


Namibian elections have experienced increasing voter apathy, particularly in the regional council and local authority elections. Statistics by the Electoral Commission of Namibia show that on average, only half of the registered voters in contested constituencies voted in the previous general elections for regional councils.

While the first regional council elections in 1992 had a decent voter turnout of 81%, the most recent general elections of 2010 and 2015 had a voter turnout of merely 38% and 37% respectively. A similar trend can be observed in the elections for local authorities. The presidential elections, however, paint a slightly different picture, with an average voter turnout of 71% since the second election in 1994.

The low voter turnout in the regional council and local authority elections is an indication of the low significance voters bestow upon subnational government. This, together with other possible factors such as alienating election manifestos, a lack of unique selling points by political parties and candidates, a lack of confidence in election candidates and overwhelming choices, affects the quality of election outcomes.

The Namibian constitution provides for the establishment of regional councils and local authorities to empower communities to make decisions on matters that directly affect their lives, within the limits of a unitary state and its laws. To give effect to this power, eligible Namibian citizens elect their representatives to their respective regional councils and local authorities.

The elected representatives, known as councillors, should represent the ideals and desires of their voters. They do this by prioritising and equitably planning for and taking decisions regarding the social, economic and physical development of the communities they represent and by ensuring that regional councils and local authorities adequately provide the services that communities require.

However, most services that communities need to improve their lives are currently controlled by the central government in Windhoek. This implies that line ministries plan for and take decisions regarding the development of communities far from Windhoek and who might have unique characteristics. The National Assembly, therefore, adopted the Decentralisation Policy in September 1997 to ensure that the. central government transfers some of its political and executive powers to subnational government.

Decentralisation enables communities to decide how to use the funds allocated to them by attending meetings of their regional councils, local authorities or local development committees and directly engaging their elected representatives on their needs and concerns.

Beside the functions already conferred upon regional and local authorities by the constitution and governing legislation, only a handful of functions have been delegated to regional councils. These functions include basic education, maintenance, community development, early childhood development, rural water supply, resettlement, print and audiovisual media.

Many other essential functions such as primary healthcare, rural electrification, social services, youth development and development of natural resources are yet to be delegated.

During delegation, line ministries remain accountable for the execution of such functions and provide resources to regional or local authorities to perform the functions. Until they are devolved, regional and local authorities only perform the functions on behalf of the line ministries, in preparation for devolution – the final phase of decentralisation.

In spite of the Decentralisation Policy and the Decentralisation Enabling Act, none of the functions identified have been devolved yet. Many essential functions are yet to be delegated. Although some line ministries have established regional and constituency offices, this is only to make services more accessible, while they still retain executive powers.

During devolution, identified functions are fully transferred to regional councils or local authorities to perform and be accountable for through legislative reforms. Regional or local authorities are, therefore, given the political, financial and administrative power to plan for and take decisions regarding the development of their communities. Line ministries remain responsible for policymaking, standard setting, supervision and providing technical assistance.

Until functions are devolved, regional and local authorities can only play an advisory role in the planning and execution of such functions.

The limited planning and executive powers of regional councils and local authorities affect voter turnout in elections for these authorities. Given the limited powers of subnational government, regional council and local authority elections are viewed as merely survival opportunities for councillors.

Accelerated decentralisation will enhance participatory democracy and ensure responsive and sustainable development, thereby, giving more meaning to regional council and local authority elections. Communities have the potential to benefit much better from councillors than from the central government, as councillors are more aware of their local needs and priorities.

· Tauno Iileka is a public relations practitioner at the Omaheke Regional Council. He writes in his personal capacity.