Progress for democracy in Namibia

Namibia is another one of those places that doesn’t get much coverage here. It’s main claim to fame is as one of only three countries that are less densely populated than Australia.* But Namibia went to the polls last Wednesday, in an election that offers some good signs for the health of African democracy.

For a long time, “African democracy” was almost a contradiction in terms. After the brief optimism of decolonisation in the 1960s, things went downhill quickly, and in the 1970s and ’80s the continent was dominated by one-party states and military dictatorships, usually with awful human rights records.

Progressive opinion in the west averted its eyes from this state of affairs, largely through fear of condoning racism. But the horrors of the period reflected more on the evil of colonialism, which had pillaged African societies and destroyed native systems of governance without putting anything sustainable in their place.

Namibia, formerly South-West Africa, came late to this particular party. Formerly a German colony, it was mandated to South Africa after the First World War, which kept hold of it throughout the Cold War period despite a local insurgency and adverse rulings from the United Nations. Only when apartheid was crumbling did South Africa give way, leading to a peace agreement in 1988 and Namibian independence two years later.

By this time, the end of the Cold War was bringing more widespread changes. If Namibia had won its independence in the 1970s it would presumably have become a Marxist one-party state like Angola and Mozambique. But by 1990 dictatorship was going out of fashion, and the new Namibian constitution enshrined multi-party democracy.

Nonetheless, as in South Africa, it has been a one-sided sort of democracy (although it has not copied South Africa’s odd constitutional structure – government is semi-presidential, broadly on the French model). Only one party has ever held government: the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), which had led the liberation struggle and, like the ANC, carried that prestige into its new status as a political party.

SWAPO’s candidates consistently won about three-quarters of the vote in presidential elections until the last one, in 2014, when Hage Geingob achieved the barely credible score of 86.7%. So Namibia’s status as a democracy could be said to be on the line this time around.

And it seems to have passed the test. Geingob was re-elected, but (with all but four constituencies reporting) he has only 56.8% of the vote, a big comedown. The leading opposition candidate, independent and SWAPO dissident Panduleni Itula, won 29.4%; McHenry Venaani, leader of the traditional centre-right opposition party, the Popular Democratic Movement, had 5.6%.

Early in the count it looked as if Geingob might possibly be forced to a runoff, but late counting, coming more from SWAPO’s heartland in the relatively more populated north of the country, ran more in his favor.

The president’s party did better in the National Assembly election, winning 65.2% of the vote, but that was down from 85.1% five years ago. According to the BBC, that means it has narrowly lost its two-thirds majority, winning 63 of the 96 seats. (This is the sort of information for which I don’t much trust the BBC, but given the voting figures it’s not implausible.)

Namibia is a poor country with a lot of problems, and Geingob’s government has had a rough time lately – two ministers resigned after being accused of taking bribes from an Icelandic fishing company. But democracy at least provides a safety valve for popular discontent, and a warning sign to the ruling party that it cannot take things for granted.

Armed liberation movements that try to make the transition to democratic politics don’t always do a good job of it. All things considered, SWAPO seems to have done better than most.

 

* And even one of those, Western Sahara, is disputed territory. Mongolia is the third.

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