The millstone of incumbency

19 June 2019 | Opinion

In a study titled 'Political parties in southern Africa: The state of parties and their role in democratisation' lead author Khabele Matlosa argues succinctly that political parties are the heart of politics in a representative democracy. However, parties also have the potential to become a political liability to democracy. Whether political parties prove to be an asset or a liability depends crucially, among other things, on the context within which they operate, their mode of internal governance and how they respond to external political stimuli, according to Matlosa.

The study, which took place some years ago, summarises research and interviews with political party leaderships covering 12 SADC countries - Angola, Botswana, the DRC, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

It argues that in a democracy there is no substitute for open competition between political parties in elections. But that throughout the world, however, political parties find themselves in crisis, unpopular and increasingly distrusted. They are suffering from declining membership, internal management practices that are often weak and not sufficiently democratic, and party system regulations that often set far-reaching limits to the way in which parties are allowed to operate.

Honing in on Namibia, the study concludes that the Swapo dominance that has marked the political landscape since the democratic transition of 1990 has been made possible and sustainable in the medium- to long-term due in large measure due to the advantages that come with incumbency, the liberation tradition and the weakness, disjointedness and fragmentation of opposition parties.

Whatever happens, going forward, on our political landscape it has been refreshing to witness the contestation in the Ondangwa Urban by-election, despite the pathetic voter turnout. What is becoming clear is that incumbency - given the myriad of challenges and issues being experienced in the country – is effectively becoming a millstone for the ruling party.

However, as long as the opposition largely remains fragmented, don't hold your breath for real political change, unless the internal anti-Hage Geingob forces align themselves in a broad-based new party.