Suffolk University

Can the opposition parties in Namibia overcome the political dominance of the SWAPO party? by Katrina Ramkissoon

Can a country who has only had democracy for less than three decades already begin facing democratic backsliding? Unfortunately, yes. This is the case for the African country Namibia which just became a semi presidential representative democracy in 1990. 

Namibia had been liberated through the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), which served as the representative body of the people fighting South Africa’s rule during the Apartheid. SWAPO has since adopted a democratic system and worked to create a parliament, constitution, and elections for the new multi-party system and did so within the span of four years from 1990-1994.

While the influence of SWAPO has helped the Namibian people, its dominance in the political arena has skewed the outcome of elections.  In the 2014 election, SWAPO accounted for 80% of the vote and seated 77of the 96 seats in the National Assembly. This control of the seats in the chamber has been the case for both the presidential election and the National Assembly elections since the party came into power in 1990.

Hage Geingob, who had been the country’s first prime minister in 1990, is a ranking member of the SWAPO party, currently serving as the president of Namibia. There were nine other parties that maintained the other 19 seats of parliament across both chambers.

Overcoming the SWAPO party remains a difficult feat as the party dominates consistently in elections. This intrinsically harms the principle of free, frequent, and fair elections, an actor that political scientist Robert Dahl views as a minimal procedural condition that qualifies a country as a democratic state. Namibia classifies itself as a multi-party system, however, the reality is there has only been one party in control of the state since democracy was formed.  There is a notable lack of opposition to the SWAPO party present in both chambers of parliament and with the presidency. This can skew the type of legislation that is produced across the country and offers a limited view in how to solve nationwide issues.

Opposition parties can bring in different policies and viewpoints that could potentially solve the many on-going issues in the country and address newer problems. Opposition or minority parties also serve as a check to unconstrained power in a dominant party system like Namibia.

The inability for the opposition parties to gain substantial control of the government means that there is a limited number of policies produced that legitimately reflect the minority view in the government. And with 19 of the 96 seats, the chances of those policies being passed and written into law are narrow. This reflects poorly on the state of democracy in the country as it causes is a smaller opportunity for the voters to directly express a preference for particular policies.

So, the next question is: Where can the opposition parties go from here?  With this form of democratic backsliding, accountability falls upon the institutions upholding the democratic ideology across the country. However, SWAPO is in control of these institutions such as the Electoral Commission of Namibia which had been created through the Electoral Act No. 24 of 1992. With limited support from the Electoral Commission and other institutions, the chances of electoral mobility are narrow. The nine other parties seated in parliament; (The Popular Democratic Movement, Rally for Democracy and Congress, All People’s Party, United Democratic front, National Unity Democratic Organization, Worker’s Revolutionary Party, Republican Party, South West African National Union, and United People’s Movement) that are currently fractionalized as a result of the dominant party system, will have to work in unity in order to actively engage voters and garner support so they may have a chance at becoming the party in power. 

1 Comment

  1. Gabriel Moran

    March 17, 2019 at 12:52 pm

    This post, I believe, is one of the easiest to read and consume on this blog as a whole. I personally never thought that I would be interested in learning about the current political problem in Namibia. You’ve definitely sparked my interest. I will say that personally, based on the information presented, I do not believe that this party domination is a sign of democratic backsliding. It seems to be more of a democratic hurdle for them to overcome.
    I am not very knowledgeable in the legislative tendencies of SWAPO, and their habits concerning media, civic engagement, strong opposition groups and whether they allow it or not. With that said, tyranny of the majority is definitely a potential problem for any democracy, and with great power comes great responsibility. If SWAPO is taking that responsibility into account and is not the culprit of this ridiculous majority then it is not necessarily a problem for the integrity of democracy (as long as they do not abuse their huge amount of power.). It is more of a problem concerning engagement. As you mentioned in your conclusion, the opposition parties must be more effective in being able to get more citizens to vote them into more seats.
    One question I would ask is: how much cooperation is there between SWAPO and the other parties? To think that 80% of parliament is voting in unison is difficult to believe. How much help are these opposition parties getting in order to voice their opinions and get their own problems dealt with. How often are they being taken from the fringes and winning over SWAPO votes in legislation. I think if there is a lack of cooperation, that would be the main problem that could cause democratic backsliding. If SWAPO’s goal is to completely subvert the efforts of the opposition, and that’s why they have 80% of the seats, that’s a problem. But if they are the result of actual elections of a young democracy, I would peg this problem as 1 of 2 things. 1) The process of elections are flawed in a serious way (Which I think would be a problem of it being a young democracy as opposed to a failing one). 2) They have an honest overwhelming majority.

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