The political landscape in Namibia has been unsettled by the defection of several senior leaders of the ruling SWAPO party to form an opposition party. The split comes as longtime SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma prepares to step down as party president. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from our Southern African bureau in Johannesburg.

Political analysts say Namibia may be entering a new political era as former President Sam Nujoma prepares to step down as head of the ruling SWAPO party at next week's party congress and several former SWAPO stalwarts defect to form a new opposition party.

Former Foreign Minister Hidipo Hametunya last week launched the Rally for Democracy and Progress. He told VOA Namibia needs a change.

"Of late the country has been experiencing the problem of autocracy and the flouting of democratic procedures and principles," said Hametunya. "So we want to rekindle the process of democratic transformation of our society."

Hametunya has resigned his seat in parliament and on SWAPO's central committee.

A SWAPO founder who fought in its 27-year struggle for independence, Hametunya was dismissed as foreign minister three years ago after running unsuccessfully against the SWAPO presidential candidate and Nambia's current president, Hifikepunye Pohamba.

Several other senior government and state company officials have also defected to the new party.

The director of Windhoek's Institute for Public Policy Research, Bill Lindeke, says the split is set to change what he calls the political dialogue in Namibia.

"The significance is that you have a major rupture at least within the top leadership of SWAPO that redefines politics in terms of how government has done since independence," said Lindeke.

Seventeen years after independence, some Namibian leaders are criticizing what they say is growing authoritarianism in government and cronyism in business.

Lindeke says it remains to be seen, however, whether the new party will make significant inroads into SWAPO's three-fourths majority in parliament.

Hametunya says his new party wants to address inequalities in the Namibian economy whose impressive growth has failed to benefit the estimated 55 percent of the population that lives on less than two dollars per day.

"We will present a reform redesigning the educational system and propose programs for the renovation of our health system," said Hametunya. "We will propose policies and programs to assail the scourge of poverty."

Lindeke says the opposition party has voiced some legitimate policy issues. But he attributes the split primarily to internal power struggles.

He notes that Namibia ranks among the top five countries in most surveys of African governance, corruption and policy-making. But he says there are growing pressures for change.

"You have the honeymoon of independence and you have a reasonably decent performance so far," said Lindeke. "But I think Namibia is getting to a point where they have to break with the liberation tradition and push forward with a more effective, efficient, dynamic growth mode."

SWAPO has dominated Namibian politics since independence in 1990 but is set for a change of leadership as Mr. Nujoma prepares to step down at next week's party congress. Four candidates have been proposed for the party's senior leadership and one is expected to become the SWAPO presidential candidate in elections due in two years.

Lindeke says after so many years in power, there is a desire to see new leaders.

"The new leadership that will come next with SWAPO or the opposition party leadership, both factions are emphasizing accomplishment and getting things done," he said. "So I think whichever direction it works, it's liable to improve governance."

However, the party split has caused dismay within SWAPO and has led to calls for members to pledge an oath of loyalty or face dismissal from their positions.