As widely anticipated, Namibia’s general election on 27 November 2019 returned the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) and President Hage Geingbob to power. However, the significant drop in the margin of victory for both indicates that electoral competition in the country is on the up and future assumptions of an easy win for the ruling party and its candidate might not be a sure thing. Voter turnout, meanwhile, declined significantly, which may be further evidence of a drop in support for the incumbent powers.
In the legislative election, SWAPO took 65.5% of all votes cast – 63 of the 96 parliamentary seats up for grabs. In addition to these directly elected seats, the President can appoint eight parliamentarians – bringing the house to 104 members altogether. This equates to a notable drop on the 80% of votes and 77 directly elected seats SWAPO managed in 2014. The eight additional seats afforded by the president’s powers of appointment are non-voting members, and thus the party has lost its two-thirds majority. The results show a significant decline in support for SWAPO, its nearest rival, the Popular Democratic Movement (PDM), trailed by almost 50 percentage points to receive 16.6% of votes and secure 16 seats (15.4% of the vote in the house). The conservative opposition party (formerly called the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance – DTA), however, saw its support and representation in parliament more than triple from 4.8% of votes and 5 seats in 2014. The more radical opposition alternative of the Landless People’s Movement (LPM), led by former Deputy Lands Minister Bernadus Swartbooi, managed 4.7% of the vote and 4 seats. While support for the opposition is growing fast, it will take a few electoral cycles to truly test SWAPOs dominance. However, as SWAPO will not have the advantage of an incumbent president running for the 2024 poll, the opposition’s vote share in that election can be expected to see a significant increase.
In the presidential election, Geingbob’s support fell dramatically from the 86.7% he received in 2014 to just 56.3%. Panduleni Itula, who is hardly ever mentioned without reference to his profession as a dentist, secured an impressive 29.4% of the vote as the country’s first-ever independent candidate in a presidential poll. Itula retained his SWAPO membership despite running against the party’s candidate. Perhaps more significant than the proportion of the vote he took, is where Itula was most popular. In Khomas (Windhoek) and Erongo (Walvis Bay and Swakopmund) regions the independent candidate secured just under 50% of the vote – indicating a desire for change from urban Namibians. Votes for “outsiders” to the political system (as per France’s Emmanuel Macron or the US’s Donald Trump) have become somewhat of an international trend as citizens look to people that will “shake up” the establishment. The corruption scandal around fishing licences awarded to an Icelandic company, that saw the resignations of the fisheries and justice ministers just before the poll, will have further motivated anti-establishment votes in the presidential poll.
Another way voters show disaffection with the system is to stay away from the electoral process altogether. Turnout for the presidential election was 60.8% (slightly fewer voted in the legislative poll) compared to 71.8% five years ago. While on paper SWAPO and its candidate won the election comfortably, the poll showed that Namibians are looking for alternatives. In this context, further party development within the opposition would support democratic consolidation and the emergence of a competitive system that could force increased accountability of incumbents. Namibia has enjoyed stability and free and fair elections for decades – despite concerns over electronic voting machines and hyperbolic messages from the army of “threats against the state” on the eve of polls. However, whether SWAPO will step back sufficiently to allow for the emergence of a real competitor is still to be seen.