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Namibia’s Changing Political Landscape: the 2020 Regional Council and Local Authority Elections

The article is the result of a series of interviews conducted by the authors to relevant political representatives, in order to assess the impact of 2020 regional and administrative elections after the emergence of new political parties in the 2019 national election.

Multiple records mapping elections in Namibia during the colonial era reveal that all elections held until 1978 were only for non-blacks. But even thereafter several parties representing non-whites, among them South West Africa National Union (SWANU) and Southwest Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), were excluded, rendering these elections null and void. Namibia conducted multiparty election for the first time in November 1989 supervised by the UN under Resolution 435, just before the declaration of independence in 1990. This election was vital as it shifted the country from its racialised wrecks to an inclusive society. Since then, Namibia is a de facto multi-party state but post-independence political scene has been dominated by a winner-take-all mentality politic due to the consolidation of power by the governing party SWAPO.

One of the most significant post-elections episodes in Namibia have been loads of high-profile cases brought before the election courts to challenge the credibility of national election by the opposition.   This happened in 1999 and 2004 with the Congress of Democrats (COD), in 2009 with the Rally for Democratic Progress (RDP) and in 2020 with the Independent Patriots for Change (IPC) in 2020). Most of these incidents, did not have strong evidence and the same opposition tabled limited lower profile cases before the election courts to challenge the outcomes of the elections. A combination of maladministration in the public sector and widespread corruption among the hierarchies of SWAPO has eroded public trust in the governing party as demonstrated by the outcome of 2019 national election which has seen the opposition parties emerged stronger. By 2020 local and regional election SWAPO was ailing from poor performance in national election and was rocketed by corruption scandals, because of these fragilities. Consequently, the opposition parties have gained prominence as the pressure for change is growing. 

Namibian Political Map

Elections in Africa are always viewed with suspicious eyes in Europe and in the western world in general, and claims of not being free, safe and fair are common. This is due partially because in many African countries the different European colonial powers handed over fragile democratic institutions at independence. These colonial regimes had done little to create the environments under which democratic elections could thrive.  In some cases, they refused to hold elections until the eve of independence. In a number of countries – including Kenya, Nigeria and Namibia (Cheeseman, & Fisher, 2019) – colonial authorities tried to manipulate these countries’ first democratic election outcomes to ensure that their allies would emerge victorious at independence.

The post-Cold War period witnessed several positive changes with respect to democratization in Africa, creating optimal security for a new era of multi-party systems. Participatory politics grew in the 1990s and 2010s, as the percentage of African countries holding democratic elections increased. These developments were further strengthened by the African Union’s adoption in 2000 of a Constitutive Act which provided the framework to support the continent on its democratic journey. However, Africa’s electoral journey suffered several setbacks arising from elections reversed and continued to reverse the gains of African democracy, for example the 2007–2008 Kenyan crisis, the crisis of 2008 in Zimbabwe followed by the crisis in 2016–2017, the 2010–2011 Ivorian crisis, the 2014 Lesotho crisis, the Burundian crisis in 2015–2018, in 2016-2017 the Gambian crisis, in 2019 the crisis in Mozambique, Malawi and DRC.

Notably, although Africa comprises sovereign nations, not all the countries in the region are able to organize credible elections. In addition, in most African elections the incumbent has a large advantage, often making the election a one-horse race. In the context of Namibia, elections have become an integral part of the country’s multi-democracy. The first National election took place in 1989 in the aftermath of the struggle of independence and the first Regional and Local Authority election were held in 1992 after the Electoral Act of 1992 was promulgated which guarantees free and fair election to each voter, suggesting the importance of citizens in building democracy and democratic institutions.

The 2020 Namibian Local Elections

Source: TBup elaboration on Namibian data. Party winner in the regional elections, for each constituency. Interactive map available here on Tableau. Data on local elections available here. Each of 121 constituencies elects one representative as constituency councillor. They represent their constituency in the respective regional council. Each regional council selects 3 representatives to serve in the National Council, the upper chamber.

Since the first 1989 elections, Namibia has regularly conducted National, Regional Council and Local Authority elections in timely manner. Regional Councils and Local Authorities are important because they provide a voice and platform for regional and local people, allowing them to participate in decision-making processes, as well as engage in issues affecting them.

Regional councils coordinate with National Planning Commission to develop plans which guide growth and development in the regions, as well assist local governments in the regions. Local authorities – municipalities, towns, and villages have responsibilities to provide services to the local citizens. In a way those Regional and Local institutions are a form of decentralized democracy.

What was at stake in this regional and local authority election

There were 121 constituency councillors and 57 local authorities to be elected. Unlike the previous elections when many constituencies and local authorities remained unopposed in favour of the ruling party SWAPO, this time only three constituencies remained unopposed.

Even though the ruling SWAPO remained the leader of the pack, it did not emerge unscathed from the Regional and Local Authority elections held in November last year. Intra-party conflict, corruption, ineffective service delivery, and unchanging economic conditions of the Black African majority of Namibia, a largest support of the party, damaged its popularity and standing in the Namibian politics. Consequently, the party has ceded more than 20 out of 121   constituencies to the opposition forces, combined. With the reduced performance, the possibility of the ruling SWAPO party losing the next election come 2024 is on the lips of analysts and political commentators.

Party2020 (votes)2020 %2015 %2010 %
Swapo Party of Namibia (SWAPO)292,772 56.778378.72
Independent Patriots for Change (IPC)89,030 17.53
Popular Democratic Movement (PDM)35,010 6.96
Landless People’s Movement (LPM)34,085 6.66
National Unity Democratic Org. of Namibia (NUDO)12,258 2.352.192.5
Other50,250 9.772.784.36
Total (Declared 10 December 2020)513,405   
Source: Elaboration from Electoral Commission Namibia 2020

The fall of the City of Windhoek, which is the seat of government, to opposition forces; the capture of the South by the Landless People’s Movement (LPM); the fall of major urban and economic towns of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay to the newly formed Independent Patriots for Change (IPC); and the surprisingly performances of some independent candidates in the Zambezi and Kavango East regions, suggest that the  party that prides itself on the slogan “SWAPO is the people and people are SWAPO” is losing grip of its political domination it enjoyed since the first UN-supervised democratic election in 1989.

Breakaway Parties

SWAPO, the yesteryear liberation movement, has led Namibia since the dawn of independence in 1990. Capitalizing on its liberation credentials as the party that freed the country, a privilege that comes with large electoral support from the majority black voters, National and Regional and Local Authority elections have always been a one-horse race in favour of SWAPO. Weak oppositions parties, due to lack of resources and fragmentation, could not keep up with the mighty SWAPO’s political machines.

During its ascent to the commanding height of power since Namibia became a democracy, SWAPO, as ruling party, suffered five major political splits due to intra-party division, a process that contributed to the party’s unsatisfactory performance in last year’s elections.

The last dramatic split in the party life were in 2014, in 2017 and in 2020.

In 2014 the Affirmative Repositioning (AR), a youth-based movement led by the newly elected Mayor of the City of Windhoek (COW) Dr Job Amupanda was formed. AR is yet not constituted as a party, therefore can only participate in local authority elections. It is a radical-driven organization that, however, largely draws its support from young people in their advocacy for urban land and search for job opportunities. Amupanda and his two lieutenants, Dhimbulukweni Nujoma and George Kambala, after having left SWAPO, have led the AR organization to participate in the Local Authority elections. Should AR decide to be transformed into a party it could capitalise on the positive results obtained, particularly in Windhoek, and make a formidable challenge to the SWAPO party in the 2024 general elections. 

In 2017 Clinton Bernadus Swartbooi, the former deputy minister of land and resettlement who was fired by President Hage Geingob for insubordination formed the Land People Movement, (LPM). At the centre of the LPM campaign has been the fight to repossess ancestral land, and the party seems to be succeeding in organizing and mobilizing the landless people, mostly in the Southern part of the country, against the ineffective land reform programme as indicated by this year’s election outcomes where the party won big.

In 2020, Dr Panduleni Itula was expelled from the ruling party SWAPO when he ran as an independent presidential candidate in the general election under the newly formed Independent Patriots for Change (IPC) party. In the 2020 Regional and Local Authority elections the IPC party won 29 seats in various constituencies. It also drew a lot of support from white Namibians who usually don’t participate in politics.

 A shift in voters’ preferences

Against this context, could the outcomes of the Regional and Local Authority Elections be a turning point in the Namibian political landscape? Turn-point politics in the sense that issues affecting voters influence their preferences in how they voted. What we have found through our interviews with some key political players is that to some extent this election, in terms of the issues that were at play, followed the same voting pattern as that of the national and Parliamentary election in 2019. Like the 2019 election, which saw the ruling party lose its two-third majority in parliament, voters punished non-delivery and ineffective governance. Ineffective service-delivery, corruption- ethical and moral standing of candidate and the land are some of the issues that influenced voter preference. This trend in issue-based politics is markedly different from the party loyalty politics during previous elections in which voter preferences were influenced by the voters’ loyalties to the party irrespective whether the party has deliver its promises or not.

The shift from party loyalty to issue-based politics, accompanied by the new sense of awakening brought by the independent candidacy phenomenon and the new political formation, have emboldened and empowered voters to advance their own personal interests instead of party interest, a shift that is likely to yield positive dividends for Namibia’s democracy.

Ndumba J. Kamwanyah is a multidisciplinary scholar with a PhD in public policy. He is an analyst and commentator on everything politics, economics, social and cultural

Bruno Venditto is a socio economist with a PhD in sociology. Researcher at the ISMed-CNR and part-time lecturer at the University of Namibia

Chistian Nekare is a lecturer at the University of Namibia

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