Swapo: The wounded colossus

Incumbency, job losses, graft weigh heavily on ruling party

22 November 2019 | Politics

Swapo staggers into the 2019 general election dragging behind several issues that could have potentially derailed ruling parties in other parts of the continent or world.

First and foremost, there is the economy, which has shed thousands of jobs over consecutive quarters. Ordinary Namibians are suffering, with over 700 000 people registered for drought relief, as hunger grips large parts of the country.

The devastating drought that the country has endured for consecutive seasons is, of course, not Swapo's fault.

This election is extraordinary for Swapo in a myriad of ways.

While the party is expected to win this election with relative ease, it would do so at the expense of a nation in mourning over an avalanche of issues and unkept promises.

As though there wasn't enough discontent already, the current scandal regarding alleged grand-scale bribery in the fishing sector only heightened the brewing anger.

Insatiable greed by individuals in a party that is already struggling to portray itself as beyond reproach could hurt Swapo in next week's election – especially in terms of retaining the smashing records the party set five years ago.

In 2014 Swapo got 80% percent of the vote – its highest tally ever – while President Geingob got a deafening 87% of the presidential vote.

But on the eve of an unprecedented election, where Swapo finds itself in the middle of an extraordinary storm involving a member who is standing as an independent candidate while retaining his membership in the party, the ruling party has a mountain to climb.

Swapo has flown into a dramatic fishing corruption scandal that allegedly involves payments made to now former cabinet ministers and other officials so that an Icelandic seafood company could gain access to Namibia's fishing quotas. It is alleged that hundreds of millions changed hands as grease to loosen up Namibia's resources and hand it to unscrupulous foreign business interests.

The weight of incumbency, where its political elite and faction currently with their hands on the reins of government power, has created a scenario where ordinary Namibians have persistently expressed their frustration and disdain with the party.

Yet, amid the Team Harambee and Team Swapo internal feud, which pits comrade against comrade, the Swapo hegemony is not expected to be significantly challenged, or will it?

It would seem that both these teams would vote for their beloved party, but their appetite for presidential candidates may vary.

This scenario would inevitably trickle down the rank and file of the party and the general electorate that now has a buffet of Swapo candidates to choose from.

Of course, on paper Geingob is the official party challenger for the presidency, but in the background is a dentist who clings onto his party membership while challenging for the state presidency too, to the chagrin of the leadership.

The majority of supporters of Geingob and Panduleni Itula are going to vote for Swapo, undoubtedly, but for the presidency, they have two choices. Seven if you add opposition contenders.

On that basis, Swapo's victory is, we dare say, guaranteed. It is the presidential race that will be bumpy.

Liberation struggle currency

Swapo is credited, rightly so, with “bringing independence” to Namibia after it toiled against the stubborn forces of apartheid South Africa.

The nation has repaid the party handsomely for its heroic efforts, by handing it good votes and therefore a solid mandate to rule.

It does appear that this gratitude would outweigh, for a long time, many unpleasant situations associated with Swapo, including perceived reluctance to deal with corruption decisively.

Memories of the terror that gripped the nation during the liberation war remain fresh in the minds of many a voter, and Swapo has been advantaged by fear among less literate voters that if the party gets booted out of power, another wave of war will sweep across the country.

In northern Namibia, where the party commands a huge following, this fear still persists that war tanks will re-emerge if the 'saviour' that is Swapo was no longer in power.

Swapo is reaping the fruits of its liberation credentials, but this year there is a strong sense, especially among the enlightened and the young, that voting can no longer be based on history, but on the present and the future.

Two-thirds majority a real possibility

Political commentator Graham Hopwood said this week that from the few early results seen after special voting at foreign missions and for the armed forces took place on 13 November, “Swapo's National Assembly support looks mostly solid - at least solid enough to retain the two-thirds majority”.

“The uncertainty is centred on the presidential vote - it does look like Dr Panduleni Itula's campaign will impact the support for President Geingob.

“Although the Itula campaign has been unfocused, apart from an obsession with the electronic voting machine (EVM) issue, his candidacy is acting as a lightning rod for the frustrations of many urban youth,” Hopwood said.

He said in addition that Itula's refusal to leave Swapo may confuse some voters as to who the real Swapo candidate is, while others will deliberately split their vote between Swapo in the parliamentary poll and Itula in the presidential race, because of their dislike for Geingob.

“There is also a tribal factor involved. If some voters in the north decide to favour the man from their area over the official Swapo candidate, because of tribal allegiance, that will further dent Geingob's vote.

“If Itula does well at this election it will embolden more independent candidates or new resident associations to stand at next year's regional and local elections.

“However, only political parties can gain power via the National Assembly, so the move towards independent candidates and localised activity has its limitations.”

Hopwood also said Swapo's rallies have been well-supported throughout the country, with large crowds turning out.

“They will remain the dominant party in Namibia for the time being. But the independent candidacy has shown that Swapo's support base is not as secure as it once was.

“We will only know the extent of this next week. Ultimately, I think a viable opposition party could emerge organically from the youth, rather than being a split off from Swapo (see the failures of CoD and RDP), or being led by people who have fallen out with the youth league or Swapo in general.”