Namibia's Tranquil Election Boosts African Democracy

The victorious SWAPO party faces economic crises, including joblessness as high as 40 percent

THE ruling party and its charismatic leader, Sam Nujoma, swept to victory in Namibia's first post-independence poll, consolidating democracy in southern Africa and the dominance of the former liberation group.

The landslide victory of about 70 percent for both the party and Mr. Nujoma in the parliamentary and presidential elections on Dec. 7 and 8 was boosted by a strong ethnic vote. The victory gives Nujoma's South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) enough of a majority to re-write the Constitution in order to allow the president to serve a third term.

While this opens the field for effective one-party dominance, the election in the large, underpopulated desert country was deemed by international observers to be free, fair, and tranquil -- the latest successful poll in a region thirsty for peace after years of apartheid-era destabilization.

''You could say Namibia is in effect a one-party state with SWAPO's unassailable victory,'' a Western diplomat says. ''But this is what the people want and what they chose.''

Namibia slips attention

As testimony to its smooth transition from turbulence, the country has largely slipped from world attention after great fanfare during its 1989 pre-independence elections, supervised by the United Nations, and after its 1990 independence from South Africa.

The end of the 23-year guerrilla struggle of SWAPO and the 1988 agreement linking Namibian independence to the withdrawal of Cuban troops from neighboring Angola marked the start of post-cold-war pacification in the region.

The Namibian vote follows Mozambique's first multiparty election in October and South Africa's first all-race balloting in April. Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, and Zimbabwe have all embraced Western-style democratic models.

Political analysts said SWAPO would have 50 seats in the 72-seat parliament, versus 42 held now. This compares with about 20 seats for the opposition Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, whose leader Mishake Muyongo only mustered about 28 percent of the presidential vote.

Political analysts partially attributed the sweeping win of SWAPO and Nujoma to a lack of strong support for the DTA, which has been tainted by its former ties to the erstwhile white regime in South Africa.

Nujoma's electoral prospects, on the other hand, were buoyed by support from his longtime ally, South African President Nelson Mandela. Just before the election, Mandela announced that South Africa would write off Namibia's $228 million pre-independence debt -- which could help boost the country's gross domestic product of only $1.1 billion.

Scandals sidelined

The charisma of Nujoma, who is seen as the father of independence, also helped the formerly Marxist SWAPO win, despite corruption scandals and a dismal economic record, analysts said.

''The loyalty toward the party and the personality is very evident,'' said Namibian political scientist Andre du Pisani.

SWAPO appeared to suffer scant electoral damage from its inability to significantly reduce poverty. Unemployment is pegged up to 40 percent in some areas. Annual per capita income is around $500, but the gap between rich and poor is so great that for three-fourths of the 1.4 million population, the average income is about half that figure.

As for corruption, Cabinet ministers have been embroiled in such scandals as misusing relief funds and poaching wild ostriches. Nujoma's standing with the public apparently was not hurt by revelations that his administration had splurged on purchases of an executive jet and four Alouette helicopters.

Nujoma's campaign calls to ''bury the opposition'' were heeded in particular by the country's largest ethnic group, the Ovambo, who inhabit the densely populated north. SWAPO traditionally commands great support there. In some northern districts voter turnout was more than 90 percent.

But in other areas apathy was the winner. At most, 65 percent of the 650,000 registered voters cast ballots -- versus 90 percent in the 1989 poll, when pre-independence euphoria reigned.

''We are fighters. We are manufacturing weapons and ammunition against the new enemies -- they are poverty, hunger, disease, and ignorance,'' Nujoma said.

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