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Namibia's Likely New President Seen as Consensus Builder

Ballots are being counted in Namibia's general election. Although final results are not expected for several days, it is virtually certain that ruling SWAPO Party candidate Hifikepunye Pohamba will be elected the country's second president since independence.

The dominant figure in Namibia's election did not run for office. He is the man who is stepping down, Namibia's founding-president, Sam Nujoma.

Mr. Nujoma is leaving after three terms in office. His chosen successor is his longtime friend and fellow liberation struggle veteran Hifikepunye Pohamba.

With opinion polls showing support for their SWAPO Party at roughly 75 percent, Mr. Pohamba is almost guaranteed to win. Many here felt the real election was six months ago, when he was chosen as the SWAPO candidate.

For a man who has been a cabinet minister since independence in 1990, Mr. Pohamba has retained a remarkably low profile. Even people who voted for him seem to have little sense of what he will be like as a president.

University of Namibia political science lecturer Phanuel Kaapama calls him a consensus-builder.

"Now if you also look at the personality of the honorable Pohamba, he is a man who would want to normally engage in discussions, dialogue, to try and resolve any conflict that arises in a peaceful manner. And I think he will be bringing that to the presidency," he said.

Mr. Pohamba confirmed that assessment Tuesday in an interview with the French news agency, AFP, when he said he believes in "talk, talk, talk." "If you do not talk, you will not be able to find a solution," he said.

Mr. Pohamba has never expressed ambition to be president, until quite recently. According to Mr. Kaapama, "he is seen as a humble, uncomplicated man who often does his own grocery shopping."

"Yes, that has been the trend. A very accessible man. A man who his peers, people of his age, they all call him by his first name or comrade, as many Namibians especially from SWAPO call one another," he said. "So he is a very down-to-earth man. He is a man who would be very prepared to listen. And that, I think, would be a strong point of his presidency."

Mr. Kaapama says consultation and consensus-building will be particularly important because his first term will be a time of transition, not only for the government, but for SWAPO as well. He says Mr. Pohamba will need to unite the party after a bruising contest to determine Mr. Nujoma's successor, and he will also have to keep Namibia on a path toward development.

During the campaign, Mr. Pohamba pledged to continue the policies of his predecessor.

Many opposition politicians have said they believe Mr. Nujoma will continue running things behind the scenes. At the very least, the outgoing president will retain considerable influence, since he will remain president of SWAPO until at least 2007.

Mr. Pohamba is a close friend of the president, and has similar liberation-struggle credentials. Both men were founding members of SWAPO at its inception in 1960, and both went into exile not long afterward.

Independent political analyst Graham Hopwood says their histories have been intertwined.

"The two men have worked together very closely over the last 40 years. They are close friends... So in that sense the two men could work quite well together, because they understand each other very well," he said. "But certainly Nujoma is the more dominant force in that relationship, whereas Pohamba has always been a kind of follower of Nujoma, rather than a sort of leadership politician in his own right."

But as president of the nation, analysts agree that Mr. Pohamba will have to lead from the front, rather than play his customary supporting role, if he wants to defuse opposition allegations that he is a puppet. Mr. Kaapama says he will have to rise to the occasion if his presidency is to succeed.

"Now when Mr. Pohamba takes the office of president come March next year, that office in itself has a number of challenges that it will put on him," he said. "It will not just be fine to say that the SWAPO policy is stating this on the following issue. He would also have to state what he then says as the president of the country. So that will put him into a situation where he will also have to take leadership."

Mr. Pohamba has named several key issues he hopes to focus on during his presidency, including improving the economy and the education system.

Another issue is land reform. About 4,000 commercial farmers, most of them white, own roughly 40 percent of Namibia's arable land, and Mr. Pohamba has been clear about the need to redress that imbalance. As lands minister, he notified about 20 commercial farmers that their land is on track for expropriation, and he says he will proceed with that plan as president. But he also emphasizes that Namibia's land reform program will proceed according to the constitution, with fair compensation paid to the owners.