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    Can SWAPO Party Reverse Its Path Of Declining?

    Namibian President Hage Geingob arrives to cast his vote in the country’s election, Windhoek, Namibia, Nov. 27, 2019 (AP photo by Brandon van Wyk)
    WINDHOEK—In an era of political flux around the world, Namibia has long been an outpost of stubborn consistency. The ruling SWAPO Party has won every election since the country’s independence in 1990. Generally, the only matter for political debate was which opposition party would out-perform the others. That changed in the most recent general election in November. Dogged by an economic downturn and a damaging corruption scandal, SWAPO faced its first serious political challenge in 30 years, while President Hage Geingob’s bid for a second five-year term was nearly derailed by a surge in support for an outsider candidate.

    The ruling party still managed to eke out a victory, but at the cost of its two-thirds supermajority in parliament. The election was a major alarm bell for both SWAPO and Geingob, who must now work to rebuild public support ahead of further electoral contests scheduled for later this year. There was genuine optimism surrounding Geingob’s presidency when he first took office in March 2015. In the previous year’s elections, SWAPO had claimed 80 percent of the seats in the National Assembly.

    Geingob, a longtime politician for the ruling party SWAPO who served as Namibia’s first prime minister from 1990 until 2002, garnered an unprecedented 87 percent of the vote. Buoyed by this strong support, the new president boldly declared a “war on poverty” and introduced an ambitious development blueprint called the Harambee Prosperity Plan. But Geingob’s rhetoric that “no one should be left behind” soon began to ring hollow, partly due to Namibia’s dependence on volatile revenue flows from exports of natural resources. Rising public debt led the Geingob administration to cut spending on social services and infrastructure projects.

    A plan to become the first African country with a universal basic income grant was ditched amid a downturn in the commodities market. Several of the country’s uranium mines remain mothballed due to declining interest in new reactors around the world following the 2011 nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan. Meanwhile, the market for Namibia’s other main export, diamonds, has been uncertain since the 2009 global economic downturn. Geingob’s first term has also been dominated by a pernicious drought that has wiped out livestock and reduced crop yields across Namibia. As of late 2019, 700,000 people—more than a quarter of the population—were estimated to be in need of food aid. The government’s mounting debt gave it little room to maneuver as the economy slipped into recession in 2016.

    The following year, Fitch Ratings and Moody's downgraded Namibian bonds to junk status, primarily due to the Geingob administration’s borrowing spree. The country’s debt-to-GDP ratio hit an all-time high of 49 percent in 2019. Despite the adverse economic conditions, SWAPO at first appeared headed for another victory in the Nov. 27 parliamentary and presidential elections, simply due to the lack of a viable opponent. Namibia’s main opposition party, the Popular Democratic Movement, or PDM, is a rebranded version of an organization that acted as a proxy for the apartheid-era South African government when it controlled Namibia prior to 1990.

    It generally polls in the single digits. But what looked like another predictable election was soon upended by the emergence of an independent candidate: Panduleni Itula, a dentist who lived in the United Kingdom for three decades before returning to Namibia in 2013. Itula was an independence activist during the colonial era, and a former member of SWAPO’s youth league. He presented himself as a party member who had fallen out with the Geingob camp. This served to split the usually monolithic SWAPO vote partly along tribal lines, as Itula hails from the populous north of the country, while Geingob is part of a western minority tribe. But Itula’s most energetic support came from urban youth frustrated by their diminishing economic prospects. Namibia has a 46 percent youth unemployment rate.
    The recent election was a major alarm bell for both SWAPO and President Hage Geingob, who must now work to rebuild public support.
    Despite running an election campaign that focused on his objections to Namibia’s contentious electoral system, which uses Indian-made electronic voting machines EVMs, Itula’s candidacy soon picked up momentum. In contrast to SWAPO’s expensive campaign roadshow, Itula moved quickly from town to town, addressing mostly impromptu but highly enthusiastic gatherings. He strolled through the main streets of each community followed by his supporters, earning him the nickname “Johnnie Walker.” Then, just two weeks before the election, a major corruption scandal dealt yet another blow to Geingob’s prospects. Senior SWAPO officials and their business associates were found to have accepted millions of dollars in bribes from an Icelandic seafood company, Samherji, in return for lucrative government-issued fishing quotas.

    The fiasco, which came to be known as “fishrot,” was documented in a trove of 30,000 confidential documents released by the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks. Two Namibian Cabinet ministers and four of their associates were arrested in connection with the revelations. On Election Day, it soon became clear that Itula was performing well in the capital, Windhoek, and main port town of Walvis Bay, while Geingob was holding on to SWAPO’s traditional rural strongholds. In the end, Itula took 30 percent of the vote to Geingob’s 56—the worst showing ever for a SWAPO candidate. Most significantly, the ruling party lost its two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, the required threshold to amend the constitution. The embarrassing election results, combined with the fallout from the Fishrot scandal, have put the normally bullish Geingob on the back foot.

    The prospects for any major achievements in his second term, which officially starts on March 21, seem muted. Perhaps the most he can hope for is a turnaround in the economy and improved job prospects for Namibians, especially for the urban youth who are turning against SWAPO. Talk of eliminating poverty has largely evaporated. Instead, Geingob’s new administration will face several tough challenges. It must stimulate the economy without pushing the national debt even higher, while reining in and possibly even closing down some of Namibia’s expensive but non-performing state-owned enterprises, such as the national airline, Air Namibia. The civil service is also bloated and no longer affordable. But deep reforms, while necessary, could further erode SWAPO’s popularity in the short run.

    In addition, Geingob faces rising public anger about corruption, which has long been a major concern. However, when some of his Cabinet ministers publicly expressed outrage over the Fishrot scandal, he criticized them and suggested they should resign if they are not happy with how the government is handling the matter. This suggests Geingob wants to wash his hands of responsibility rather than lead a much-needed anti-corruption drive. Since the November election, Itula has busied himself with mounting a court challenge on 17 July 2020 to Supreme Court to declare the results null and void due to massive fraud and rigging during electronic voting.

    There is speculation that he will formally part company with SWAPO's disgruntled members and launch his own political party or carry on the movement of Independent Candidates. Such an organization could pose a formidable challenge to SWAPO in local and regional elections that are scheduled for next November. Even as it gears up for that test, the ruling party must contend with its own internal divisions. The 78-year-old Geingob has dominated SWAPO since becoming party president in 2017. His supporters still control the party’s decision-making bodies, but his critics, increasingly emboldened, have their sights set on the 2022 party congress, when Geingob’s successor is expected to emerge.

    Given the president’s declining political clout, his ability to guide that process and name his heir is uncertain. Previous favorites who were ordained to take over the top leadership role, such as Vice President Nangolo Mbumba and Foreign Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, are 78 and 67 years old, respectively. They have seen their prospects fade as the party looks for a more dynamic candidate who can help recapture the youth vote. Who the party looks to, and the other key decisions it makes in the next five years, will be critical for its future. If Geingob’s second term turns out to be like his first, he is likely to be remembered not only as the man who crashed the Namibian economy but also as the leader who brought the once imperious SWAPO down to earth.

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