AFTER a seven-month election campaign, Namibia's 701,000 voters go to the polls today in a ballot that will pave the way for Africa's last colony to break free from 74 years of South African rule. The voting, taking place over five days under the supervision of the United Nations, will determine the fortunes of 10 political groups made up of more than 40 political parties. The result are expected Nov. 14.
``After all the years of waiting, the people of Namibia themselves will be able to have their say,'' said UN Special Representative Martti Ahtisaari on the eve of the ballot.
The South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), which has suffered heavy casualties in a 23-year-old bush war with South African security forces, is strongly favored to emerge as the victor. SWAPO enjoys solid support among the majority Ovambo tribe that makes up more than half the territory's sparse 1.3 million population.
The groups will be allocated seats in a 72-seat constituent assembly on the basis of proportional representation. If SWAPO succeeds in polling more than two-thirds of the vote, it will be able to adopt its own constitution and form a government.
If it fails to gain two-thirds, a more complex period of coalition politics is likely to precede the adoption of a constitution. This could delay the target independence date of April 1, 1990.
Several factors, some political scientists say, could contribute to depriving SWAPO of the needed two-thirds majority. The voting system favors small parties. The ballot is confusing, making it particularly difficult for the 60 percent of the population that is illiterate. Thousands of white South Africans who had one parent born in Namibia are likely to swell the anti-SWAPO vote. And SWAPO itself has recently been confronted with damaging allegations of arbitrary detention and torture of its members in exile.
The party likely to come in second to SWAPO is the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), a broad-based coalition of the territory's diverse ethnic groups who favor a Western-style democracy and private property ownership.
The party expected to come third - and the one most likely to bargain with SWAPO - is the United Democratic Front (UDF), a coalition of disparate parties dominated by the minority Damara tribe.
The elections taking place under the 11-year-old UN Security Council Resolution 435, follow a United States-brokered peace accord between South Africa, Angola, and Cuba. The key elements of the accord are the withdrawal of 50,000 Cuban troops from Angola in exchange for Pretoria relinquishing control of Namibia.
Pretoria has been forced give up control against the wishes of most of the white voters because of military and international factors beyond its control.
Facing joint pressure from the US and the Soviet Union to take part in a negotiated solution, Pretoria had to consider the cost of further economic sanctions and an escalating military conflict against Soviet-backed Cuban and Angolan forces.
Even so, the mineral-rich territory will remain an economic captive of South Africa and, therefore, will likely be vulnerable to Pretoria's political manipulation. The territory's only port - Walvis Bay - will remain in South African hands.
Pretoria's decision to opt for a settlement has not removed a deep mutual mistrust between the two main adversaries.
The fragile settlement process came close to being derailed for the second time in seven months on Nov. 1, when South African Foreign Minister Roelof Botha said security forces had been placed on alert to counter an imminent SWAPO ``invasion.''
Subsequent disclosures have revealed that ``intercepted'' UN messages - which Mr. Botha produced to demonstrate UN knowledge of the alleged SWAPO build-up - were fakes that had been transmitted on a UN Transitional Assistance Group frequency.
Botha did not consult either Pretoria's administrator-general in the territory, Louis Pienaar, or Mr. Ahtisaari before going public on the basis of what proved to be phony messages.
The blunder - which Western diplomats say could have been cooked up by right-wing elements in the South African military bent on wrecking the settlement plan - appears to have boosted SWAPO's chances in the ballot at the expense of its main rival, the DTA.
In an earlier incident which nearly sank the UN plan, SWAPO guerrillas infiltrated Namibia ahead of the April 1 implementation date for the plan. South Africa responded by unleashing its security forces from bases. More than 300 were killed.
Tensions are presently running high in the north of the territory where many white farmers - organized into civil defense units - have been armed by South African-run police. SWAPO - like South Africa - insists it will abide by the election result and does not contemplate armed action.
Some members of the 75,000-strong white community fear seizure of their land and a curtailment of rights under a SWAPO government. But most have decided to stay and test SWAPO's conciliatory tone about respecting democratic principles and sanctioning a mixed economy.
``We have no problem with a multiparty system,'' said SWAPO Information Secretary Hidipo Hamutenya in a recent interview. ``We have no problem with the bill of rights and we have no quarrel with the principle of no-nationalization-without-compensation,'' he said. But he insisted that an electoral defeat of SWAPO ``will mean there has been massive rigging.''
Although Botha has admitted he was duped by the messages, he insists that Pretoria knew about a build-up and that his action set in motion monitoring procedures to ensure that a SWAPO incursion does not take place.
Following a meeting with Angolan Foreign Minister Pedro de Castro van Dunem in Windhoek Saturday, Botha said that he accepted assurances by SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma that there were no SWAPO elements north of Namibia's border.
``I leave here with the first impressions that the coming week's election will be peaceful, free and fair,'' Botha said.