Swapo’s revival dreams require drastic action

Martin Endjala

Swapo will have to do more to regain the lost trust from the Namibian people, if it wants to win the 2024 elections and be a dominant force as it was in the past. Of late, the ruling party has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons and its perceived unwillingness to fight corruption is further tainting the Swapo brand, Ndumba Kamwenyah a political analyst said this when interviewed by the Windhoek Observer.

Kamwenyah stated that Swapo has a daunting task to regain its credibility, as the party has disappointed the people on many fronts on numerous occasions, to the point where Namibians get agitated by mere mention of the brand’s name.

The corruption in government, which to many observers has become endemic, service delivery issues and the party’s inaction against politicians and technocrats for alleged corporate governance failures, are ascribed as some of the main reasons for the distrust people have developed against the majority party.

Political analyst Henning Melber opined that Swapo will have to dig deeper to try and win the lost trust, although there are already signs that they are trying, it will take time to reap the results.

After 25 years, Swapo lost its two-third parliamentary majority and for the first time its presidential candidate received less votes than the party, with a decline of 30 percent.

The new Landless People’s Movement (LPM) became the third strongest party after the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM), which as the official opposition recorded a strong increase.

The independent presidential candidate Panduleni Itula representing a dissenting Swapo faction, won almost 30 percent of the votes, after being dismissed from the party and co-founded a new party, the Independent Patriots for Change (IPC) in mid-2020.

A research carried out by an independent foundation based in Gutersloh, Germany, the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) of 2022 stated that the regional and local authority elections in late November 2020 reinforced the ”centrifugal tendencies with a substantial shift from SWAPO to opposition parties, as LPM, IPC and PDM won power in several regions and many local authorities including in all the large municipalities.”

For the first time, Swapo was degraded to an opposition party in several regions, and towns. The research was conducted over the period of February 1, 2019 to January 31, 2021. The BTI assesses the transformation toward democracy and a market economy as well as the quality of governance in 137 countries.

This change in the political landscape, tested Swapo’s respect for democracy, as the party is no longer in firm control. It now faces the challenge of regaining credibility and trust.

The loss, the report says, was to some extent a result of a lack of delivery due in part to the negative effects of an ongoing recession since 2016. It was also a response to the growing number of large-scale corruption cases and misappropriation of funds.

Namibia has entered a stage of political competition in which Swapo for the first time must earn support from voters. It obtained a two-third parliamentary majority five years later and won more than 80 percent of the votes in the parliamentary elections in November 2014.

The party’s presidential candidate has always won a larger proportion of votes in the presidential election than SWAPO in the parallel parliamentary election. In 2014, Hage Geingob won a record 86 percent of the vote, becoming Namibia’s third elected president. But, five years later, his votes plummeted by 30 percent – doing worse than the party.

Swapo has been the dominant political, however, the continued socio-economic discrepancies over the 30 years since independence, which contrast with the self-enriching tendencies of the new elite, have led to growing public frustration.

Expectations among the majority of the population of a better life have been largely disappointed. While poverty has been reduced in Namibia, inequality remains among the highest in the world. Socio-economic discrepancies were further exacerbated by the recession that began in 2016. Swapo has displayed an autocratic leadership and governance style, anchored in overwhelming electoral support.

The party is still recognized and respected for its role as an anti-colonial liberation movement, but there is growing dissatisfaction with the lack of policy achievements. As a result of growing public dissatisfaction, the National Assembly and presidential elections of November 2019 were marked by a political shift, as SWAPO lost its two-third parliamentary majority by one seat and President Geingob was re-elected with a record low 56.3 percent of the vote.

In the regional and local authority elections of November 2020, the trend also accelerated markedly and the opposition made significant inroads.

Swapo lost its majority in several regions and numerous towns, including the capital Windhoek as well as Namibia’s other large municipalities. For the first time, Swapo’s commitment to democracy has been tested, as its political hegemony eroded. Political rhetoric remains largely confrontational and includes on occasions the use of hate speech.

For the first time, the clashes between members of the opposition and the dominant party have resulted in confrontations in the National Assembly that have bordered on physical violence. While this is limited to personal animosities among opponents, it has introduced a new form of confrontation into the political sphere.

Religion plays no role in conflicts, but interethnic sentiments have become more strongly articulated, and have caused the head of state on several occasions to warn of the risk that tribalism poses to social peace and stability.

The vocal dispute about the victims of the colonial genocide and the question of adequate compensation has led to noticeable conflicts between some ethnic leaders.
With the recent regional and local authority election results, the confrontational nature of politics has increased.

But it is too early to judge to what degree this marks a turning point toward potentially violent forms of contestation. In tendency, however, the degree of animosities and confrontation seems to be on the rise, though still take largely non-violent forms at present.

The implementation of white papers is often hampered by inter- and intra-ministerial competition and claims over ownership, or a lack of resources and know-how.

The expectations created by the promises of HPP pledged to eradicate poverty by 2020 and the subsequent disappointments over non-delivery have led to growing public frustration.

Several high-ranking members in its politburo and central committee, and several backbenchers in the parliament were found guilty in a court of corruption or other criminal acts such as fraud.

The most dramatic case to date, which emerged in November 2019 and has been dubbed fishrot, involved two ministers and several members of state-owned enterprises.

While removed from office and subsequently arrested, the two ministers remained members of the party’s politburo and were not even suspended from office initially on the argument that they are innocent until found guilty.

The ministers were allowed to resign and were thanked by the president for their patriotic service. This contributed to widespread public mistrust and damage, with the public already skeptical that the government was doing mere lip service to fight corruption.

While there is an institutionalized anti-corruption body, the state body remains understaffed and underfunded, and its political autonomy is widely questioned. The latest reports, however, suggest a determination to investigate the fishrot scandal seriously and to uncompromisingly prosecute any criminal activities.

At this moment in time, it remains to be seen to what extent this might restore credibility and trust in the government’s anti-corruption agenda.

However, with the reduced dominance of the governing party in the parliament, and the governing party’s loss of majority control in several regions and numerous local authorities, it remains to be seen to what extent democratic commitment is more than lip service.

For the time being, democracy remains the only accepted political system. Frustration is also rising with regard to the continued unequal distribution of privately owned land, which is a relic of Namibia’s settler-colonial history and limited nationalization.

In view of SWAPO’s socialist tradition, the “willing seller-willing buyer” policy with regard to land redistribution is widely considered to be unjust. Tribalistic tendencies have been singled out as a threat to political and social stability by the head of state.

But de-centrifugal tendencies have so far not been a significant risk factor for social stability and individual attacks on specific population groups, not least the white minority during 2020 by senior office-bearers have been met by strong protests from a wide panorama of political agencies that are not anchored in the white community.

Swapo has been increasingly marred by internal factionalism and power struggles, and it will be significant how these conflicts are handled. In addition, concerns that the security apparatus, the police and the military closely affiliated to Swapo might interfere in domestic policy need to be addressed too.

“The journey to revival for Swapo seems to be a daunting task that the brand will have to endure”, Kamwenyah concludes

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