8 March 2019

Namibia: Is Namibia Ready for an Independent Presidential Candidate?

PANDULENI Itula, if what is circulating on social media is indeed authentic, has thrown the first spear in assessing the viability of an independent presidential candidate in Namibia.

Some people on social media see his action as a declaration of his intentions to run as an independent presidential candidate. Itula is a bona fide Swapo member, former Swapo Party School lecturer, British-trained lawyer and a dentist.

An independent candidate is one who runs for political office with no formal party affiliation. Although our electoral laws make provision for any Namibian who meets the requirements to run as an independent candidate, an entry of an independent candidate/s in the election process this year would be the first for the country, which is a paradigm shift for Namibian politics.

It would even be a game-changer for Swapo politics if a candidate from within emerges, a move which comes with serious implications for both the party and the independent candidate.

However, the mind-boggling question to ask is whether Namibia is ready for an independent candidate. Yes and no, depending on which perspective you are using to look at it.

Those saying the time for independent politics is now are convinced that the current prevailing political and economic situation will enable the electorate to tick their crosses for an independent candidate.

Politically, the ruling party is so divided that there are two teams in one party, namely: Team Harambee and Team Swapo; and antipathy towards Swapo is on the rise due to the perception (real or perceived) of high-level corruption among politicians, and inaction to address it.

Namibia's economy is in free fall, accompanied by high rates of unemployment, income inequality with huge disparities between the haves and have-nots, and unaffordable housing in urban areas.

However, history suggests that the prospect of winning for any independent candidate is infinitely slim, like a camel going through the eye of a needle. In the USA, where the phenomenon of independent candidates (or a third party, as it is referred to in that country) is a common occurrence, George Washington was elected twice as an independent candidate.

Theodore Roosevelt, Millard Fillmore and Martin van Buren, Robert la Follette, Ross Perot, George Wallace, Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, and Jill Stein -- all attempted a third party run, but lost in the end.

On the surface (given the division within Swapo, the worsening economic situation, the public perception that there is high- level corruption among politicians), it may seem the time is now feasible for Namibians to vote for an independent candidate. Not so fast. It's still an uphill battle for any independent candidate to win for a number of factors.

The Namibian electorate largely votes on party loyalty basis, not for a person. This means an independent candidate without party affiliation may still be a no-go for many voters.

Here, I am also talking of a situation in terms of campaign resources and mobilisation, where an independent candidate will have to battle a well-orchestrated party and state machinery. Therefore, resources constraints can be an obstacle for any independent candidate, unless of course he/she is wealthy, or obtains some funding.

Another is the reality that Namibians, when it comes to politics and elections, largely exhibit a rent-seeking mentality in which they tend to associate or vote for those in power in attempts to curry favour, or in the hope of benefiting. We also do not have independent voters, because of party affiliation, with electoral power to swing the votes.

Do we need independent candidates in our political system? The answer is a qualified yes. The pros of an independent candidate is that it sends a wake-up call to the incumbent political party to work harder for the fear of being outvoted, and clean up its mess in that they become more accountable and transparent to the voters.

From this perspective, an independent candidacy is a democracy promoting activity because it pushes political parties to get their act in order, and improve service delivery to the voters. The cons, in the Namibian context, are that they can be a spoiler for opposition party candidates in the sense that they may take their votes, instead of those for the incumbent candidate they want to unseat. So, independent candidates may actually further weaken opposition politics.

However, that should not be reason enough to prevent an independent candidate from running. Namibian politics urgently calls for a new voice to provide a better alternative than the status quo. That alone would shake both the ruling party and opposition parties to their core.

* Ndumba Kamwanyah is deputy director at the University of Namibia's centre for development and teaching and learning improvement. Follow me on Twitter:@ndumbakamwnyah

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