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Namibians Brave Long Lines to Vote


Voters in Namibia are waiting in long lines to cast ballots in an election that will bring them their second president, as the country's founding leader Sam Nujoma steps down. But computer problems have slowed the voting process to a crawl.

A poll worker in the township of Katutura carefully inspects a voter's ID card and then tears a presidential ballot out of her book and hands it over.

The name of this neighborhood is Hakahana, which means "Hurry Up". But there was no hurrying up the voting process, and nearly a thousand people stood patiently outside the polling station, in a line that snaked around the building and down the street.

Lines moved slowly at polling stations all over Windhoek, partly because of unspecified problems with the computerized voter registration list.

On the far western edge of town, one of the newest squatter camps does not have electricity, so the polling station there does not have a computer, and the process moved even slower. Voters cast their ballots inside a windowless shack, as polling officers squinted to check the voters' roll by the light of a gas lamp.

Outside, a 24-year-old woman named Fina Gareses sat in a plastic chair, waiting her turn. She got in line before 6:00 AM and four hours later was still a long way from the front. But she was determined to stay as long as it took to cast her ballots for president and parliament.

"There is no other choice," she said. "We must be here until nine o'clock in the evening, or until 10:00. There is no other choice. We want to vote."

The two voting days have not been declared public holidays, so many people have had to take time off from work in order to stand in the long lines.

Although Ms. Gareses did not mind waiting, she says many members of her family decided to come back early Tuesday, when they hope the lines will be shorter.

"Ah, my families do not want to vote today. Because they say the queue is too long, so they do not want to come today," she said. Tomorrow they will be here around two o'clock in the morning time. In the morning, because a lot of the people are also here today. Because the queue is very long and we are so many."

The lines were nearly as long at a polling station across town, in the wealthy suburb of Klein Windhoek, where black and white voters waited side-by-side in a visible display of Namibia's ethnic diversity. Voters were largely good-natured and took the long waits in stride. One woman, who did not give her name, said it gave her a chance to get to know her neighbors.

"Well, it is a social gathering. You meet all sorts of nice people and chat them up," she said.

Most people seem determined to vote simply because they consider it their civic duty. This is only Namibia's fourth election since independence from South Africa in 1990.

Nobody is expecting sweeping change. Even the staunchest opposition supporters foresee a landslide victory in both the presidential and parliamentary polls for the ruling SWAPO Party, which took three-quarters of the votes in the last general election, five-years ago.

Sam Nujoma, Namibia's first and only president, is stepping down after three terms in office. His chosen successor and SWAPO's candidate for the presidency is Lands Minister Hifikepunye Pohamba, who like Mr. Nujoma was a leader of the independence struggle. Mr. Pohamba is expected to win easily and has pledged to continue Mr. Nujoma's policies.

Political analyst Graham Hopwood, who recently wrote a book on Namibian politics, says opposition parties tried without much success to sway voters by focusing on issues such as AIDS, poverty, unemployment and corruption.

"None of those issues have particularly dominated the debate, although they've all been raised by parties," he said. "So I think we are still basically operating on a similar level as we did in previous elections where issues are not so important, it is more about the history of the liberation struggle, what actually happened then and which parties played which role in that time. It is about personalities, Nujoma being the most dominant personality, and also about tribal affiliation. Those seem to be the sort of factors that are probably going to affect voting patterns more than any one particular issue."

It is likely to be the end of the week before a winner is officially declared. Voting continues until late Tuesday, and election officials will not start counting the ballots until Wednesday.

The new president will be inaugurated in March. After that, Mr. Nujoma will continue to have considerable influence, since he remains president of the SWAPO Party through at least 2007.