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Namibia's Fragmented Opposition Fails to Energize Voters

Namibia's ruling party is expected to emerge from this week's general election with its three-quarters majority in parliament intact. The opposition has become increasingly fragmented and the eight opposition parties contesting the election have failed to cut into the ruling party's support.

Namibian founding President Sam Nujoma is stepping down, but his absence from the ballot is not expected to hurt his party much at the polls. The president's SWAPO Party held three-quarters of the seats in the last parliament and political analysts say it could increase that number this time around.

So opposition supporters like 21-year-old Marco Hambuda are feeling a little fatalistic.

"I am going to vote, but it will not make any difference," he said.

Mr. Hambuda believes SWAPO's dominance of the executive branch and parliament means Namibia's democracy is not as healthy as it should be.

"It is bad," he added. "Because SWAPO is enjoying a two-thirds majority in the parliament, so they can pass all the laws they want. There is no competition. So it is not like a real democracy because there needs to be competition in order for it to be a democracy."

Other opposition supporters agree, including Henning Yssel, who stood in a long line to cast his ballot in eastern Windhoek.

"I would love to see a bit more balance in the government and not a one-party state, or almost a one-party state," he said.

Nine parties are vying for votes this year, and seven of them have candidates running for president. In the last election, the combined opposition parties got a quarter of the votes, and opinion polls indicate that they have failed to cut into SWAPO's support base during the past five years.

Mr. Yssel and the woman standing behind him in the voting queue, Karen West, agree that fragmentation has been a problem for the opposition.

WEST: "The other problem is as well that we have too many parties in this country. If we only had say three or four, then it would be…"
YSSEL: "Like USA. They have got two parties."
WEST: "So you can only vote for the one or the other. I mean, here you have eight parties or nine parties."
YSSEL: "Very fragmented."
WEST: "Some of the parties actually should say, all right we stand for the same thing."

An analyst from the Windhoek-based Institute for Public Policy research was recently quoted in a local newspaper as calling the opposition parties extremely lazy and saying they lack energy and imagination when it comes to selling themselves to the voters.

Another analyst, Graham Hopwood, who has written a book about Namibian politics, says the opposition parties have hurt themselves by failing to unite and also failing to get their message across.

"We are getting a sort of more and more fragmented opposition, which makes it harder for them to put issues on the national agenda," he explained. "It also makes it harder for the average voter to actually understand what is going on, and what these different parties represent. Several of the parties are also depending highly on ethnic bases, so they are looking to their tribal support in terms of bringing in a few thousand votes to get them a few MP's, but they are not really operating on the national level."

Meanwhile, the Namibian government has been able to improve many peoples' lives in some way or another, whether it is through new health clinics, rural electrification or clean drinking water. Many people also believe there is less development in regions that have supported the opposition in previous elections.

So Mr. Hopwood says people vote for SWAPO, because the party has delivered enough to avoid squandering its liberation legacy.

"They have seen some progress, and they probably feel that at the moment their hope for more progress is to continue to support SWAPO, even if they are dissatisfied in some way," he noted. "They also probably sense that the opposition can not really do too much for them, and their best hope is to keep supporting SWAPO and eventually progress and development will reach them."

Even some opposition supporters such as Mr. Yssel think Namibia is a pretty well-run country.

"Well, I think Namibia is still one of the best organized countries in Africa. So far," he said.

Namibia has a very young population, though. Roughly 39 percent of Namibians are under the age of 14, which means they were born after Namibia won independence from South Africa.

Those young people are not old enough to vote yet, but some will be for the next general election in five years. Analysts are waiting to see whether this generation will follow their parents voting patterns or approach politics in a new and different way.

This year's election may give the first indications of that. Namibia's youngest voters, including 21-year-old Marco Hambuda, were just children at independence, and have few memories of the time before.

"SWAPO is basing its campaign on the past, on the colonial times," he said. "People should be made more aware to choose the party they feel will do something for them."

But so far, few voters seem convinced that Namibia's tiny opposition parties can do anything for them that SWAPO cannot do. And for many, it appears that the memory of the independence struggle is still strong enough to guide them in the polling booths.