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Namibians Prepare to Vote

Namibians are going to the polls on Monday and Tuesday for their fourth democratic elections since gaining independence from South Africa in 1990. The country's first and only president, Sam Nujoma, is stepping down. But the outgoing leader will remain influential.

As a liberation hero and Namibia's founding president, Sam Nujoma has dominated the political scene here for decades. Now, Namibians are entering uncharted waters. The man affectionately known as Father Sam will no longer be in charge.

President Nujoma is stepping down after three terms in office. He is the only leader Namibians have ever known.

"He is the founder. He is the guy we know. He brought everything to us. So I do not see any reason to sideline him," says Ferdinand Gertze, who was just seven- or eight-years old when Sam Nujoma became president. Today, Mr. Gertze is 21 and has just finished his accounting degree at the University of Namibia. This is the first time he has been eligible to vote in a presidential election, and he has no doubts about casting his ballot for Mr. Nujoma's handpicked successor, Hifikepunye Pohamba. "I think he will do a great job because he is going to be based on Sam Nujoma's policies, so I think there will be no great difference in what he is going to do and what has happened in the past. Continuity is very important," he says.

Mr. Nujoma's SWAPO party won three-quarters of the votes in Namibia's last general election five-years ago, and it is likely that SWAPO will maintain or even increase its level of support this time around.

Many people here think the most important election is not the one happening this week, but the one that happened six-months ago when Mr. Pohamba became the SWAPO nominee. It was then that he became the heir apparent to Namibia's founding father.

Mr. Nujoma led the armed struggle against apartheid South Africa's colonial rule and became independent Namibia's first elected president. Five-years ago, he changed the constitution so he could run for a third term. Opposition parties objected to the move, fearing he would never step down.

But there will be no fourth term for Mr. Nujoma. He will remain president of the ruling party, SWAPO, which he has led since its inception in 1960. That will keep the 75-year-old leader on the political scene until at least 2007.

Independent political analyst Graham Hopwood says the departing president is likely to wield sizable influence with his close friend and likely successor, Mr. Pohamba, who has promised to carry on Mr. Nujoma's policies. "It is very much about continuity and a gradual transition away from the Nujoma era. So there is not going to be any sudden changes in policy, not going to be any sudden jolts in terms of the economy. It's very much a sort of gradual shift. And Nujoma will still very much be there as the president of the party, which he remains until 2007 at least, and he may even stand again," he says.

As political icons go, Mr. Nujoma is an enigmatic one. He has a fierce temper. He has launched famous tirades about what he sees as the evils of homosexuality. Four-years ago, he told a U.N. conference that he thought AIDS was a man-made biological weapon. His close friendship with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has raised a few eyebrows in the international community, especially in combination with some of Mr. Nujoma's more extreme comments on land reform.

But despite the often fiery rhetoric, his policies have generally been moderate, Namibia's economy has thrived, and unlike his Zimbabwean counterpart, Sam Nujoma has been widely praised for agreeing to step down after three terms in office.

Mr. Hopwood says most Namibians view Mr. Nujoma's continued involvement in politics as good for the country's stability. "He is seen as the father of the nation, and that even goes beyond just SWAPO supporters. He has that respect from much of the population. And therefore, the fact that he is still going to be there in some way as the president of the party is seen mostly as a positive thing, rather than a negative thing. What we do not know really is whether he is going to withdraw from politics over the next five years, or whether he will still very much be a strong hand, and try to influence politics, and how much he will try to influence the president who comes in, Pohamba, from next year," he says.

Even though Namibians are going to the polls this week, they will not have a new president until next year. Mr. Nujoma's successor will not be sworn in until March 21st, when Namibia celebrates the 15th anniversary of its independence.