As the unfortunate ones among us still stand in slowly snaking lines, many have already moved on, celebrating the long weekend. Me, I reflected on what happened in the last few months leading up to this day. And obviously the perfect way to tell a story about politics is with Mean Girls references, so here we go.
1. SWAPO will lose ground in the Zambezi
Two factors will work against SWAPO here. For one, the region has always been relatively politically volatile, always taking quickly to newly formed parties (CoD did well there in its first election, RDP too). Secondly, there’s the fact that the region was renamed, which apparently left many residents upset. Add to that the bizarre story of locals being abducted by the Botswana Defense Force, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people were unhappy.
2. RDP and DTA will battle it out for the South
In 1994, the DTA got the majority of its votes from Khomas and the surrounding regions, especially to the South. This is also where the RDP got a large chunk of its vote. The DTA will want to regain some of that southern electorate, as well as Windhoek voters. The question for the RDP is if they can offset losses they make there (and they will, given that the DTA has mobilized effectively and Hamutenya’s absence from the campaign trail) by making gains in the north. Otherwise they might just lose their official opposition status to the Venaani’s party.
3. Swapo will lose in half of the country, but it won’t matter
While SWAPO’s support is overwhelming overall, the distribution of people means they don’t actually win everywhere. Look at this map of last time around (this is the National Assembly results):
In terms of area, SWAPO only gets a majority in half the country. But of course they rack up huge totals in the tiny, but highly populated constituencies in the north as well as in Windhoek and at the coast. That adds up, and overall they win by 75 percent.
I’ve seen a lot of people on twitter talking about how they are disillusioned about the SWAPO party, and so they say they will boycott the elections to “send a message.” I just wanted to note quickly why I think that’s a terrible idea.
Most likely, you are not sending a message at all
The idea behind a boycott — whether organized by voters or by opposition parties — is to delegitimize the regime in power. This kind of action can be used when elections are rigged. The people say: We will not participate in this sham so that you cannot claim you represent us. If a large proportion of people stay away, the rulers will find it harder to maintain their support — be it domestic or foreign– and the regime is more likely to fall. But individuals staying away is not a boycott, it is an act of apathy. A potent message can only be felt if a large proportion of people coordinate and publicize their boycott. Otherwise this likely won’t be noticed as turnout fluctuates.
If you are sending a message, it’s the wrong one
If you stay away from the vote in an act of apathy, that’s supporting the status quo. The ruling party will be happy if all those who don’t like it don’t vote. That’ll push up their percentage. And opposition parties whose support remains unchanged still have their safe seats and benefits. If you dislike the regime, vote against it — it’s that simple.
But what are the alternatives?
Granted, this is the problem. Many people are staying home because they like neither SWAPO nor the opposition. And it is true that, whatever you think of SWAPO, opposition parties have done very little to impress. Some have an argument that is very straightforward: SWAPO must be denied the two-thirds, so just make sure to vote for any opposition party. That might be strategically appealing but I understand that morally, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. After all, voting for undeserving opposition parties just encourages them to continue as is. And especially given how hard the vote was fought for very recently, it seems callous to vote against someone you dislike rather than for someone you support. But there actually is a range of opposition parties, and voting for one of them can send a signal to the others to raise their game. And frankly, if you’re willing to throw your vote away by not voting, you might as well protest properly and throw it to a different party. Only that sends a message.
I’m not advocating that people just blindly vote for the opposition. Nor do I think you should vote for SWAPO if you don’t like them. All I’m saying is, staying away from the vote won’t send any message, except that politicians can continue as they have for a while. And it seems that’s the last thing we want.
P.S. of course if we want change, just turning out on election day is not enough. Change can be pursued within parties or outside them; there is lots of space for activism. But taking an hour or two once every few years also matters– even if we only use this right because it was earned at such a great sacrifice.
Just over a month ago, DTA presidential candidate McHenry Venaani made headlines for a three-night stay in the Ombili settlement, ostensibly to better understand issues facing the poor. What struck me was how people in general, and newspapers specufically, reacted to his stunt.
On August 8, New Era wrote that unnamed critics thought “the politician’s action is in bad taste. Posing for photos –including one in which, depite being flamboyantly dressed, he is seen pounding mahangu — and posting them on social networks is viewed [again, by whom exactly?] as a publicity stunt to secure votes in the upcoming elections”
The same day, Sun went straight for the punch with the headline: “Sceptics question Venaani’s ‘publicity stunt,'” citing Phanuel Kaapama and Rosa Namises, both of who called it an opportunistic move.
It perplexes me that this was treated as some sort of revelation. Of course it was a stunt. Venaani is actually running a campaign here; naturally his goal is publicity. But what baffled me is how the newspapers didn’t seem to think about his target audience. The media reports critiquing him seemed — implicitly or explicitly — informed mostly by Namibian Twitter. But that’s not necessarily the people he wanted to convince. I wonder if it occurred to the journos that he was appealing to the people close to where he was staying, rather than political commentators and young professionals on twitter?
SUN briefly considered whether “the poor will buy into it.” So naturally, they asked the political commentator they were interviewing on what he thought poor people would make of it. (“Kaapama said it’s a good attempt, but it won’t generate a significant impact”)
Out of several days of news coverage, I only found one article — in The Namibian — which asked a local resident:
One of his neighbours, 20-year-old Nehemia Andreas, said he was impressed by the politician’s initiative. Andreas said the only way to know people’s grievances is when you give them audience. “You cannot know someone from a distance.” He said thatpoliticians do not really know what it is like to live in such poverty. “We have been asking him questions, and he would listen attentively to each of our contributions. We informed him of what we want, what our interests and needs are, the kind of Namibia we want to live in,” said Andreas.
Of course us twitterati, with cynicism as our default mode of looking at things, dismissed this as a cheap stunt, even tasteless or offensive. But that has no bearing on how well it does in winning Venaani votes, which was the goal here. It seemed most of the media missed the point.
The Namibian led with quite the headline on Wednesday: “Death of Opposition.” The article detailed a whole host of proposed constitutional amendments, the most of which are frankly dangerous. But one of them might actually have the (unintended?) effect of strengthening the political opposition in Namibia – although it is a long shot. Here is the logic:
- The five percent cutoff for the National Assembly means that, if things are similar to the last election, only the RDP makes it into parliament.
- Quite a few of the leaders of the smaller parties, suddenly deprived of their parliamentary seats, have a very big incentive to join forces with the RDP – the RDP would get their votes and they get to hold on to their seats.
- The opposition coalesces behind their strongest member, and we end up with a two-party system – perhaps like they have in the U.S.
Namibia’s opposition has been fracturing. In 1999, eight parties contested the election; in 2009 voters got to chose between 13. In the last decade alone, we saw five parties splinter off from their parent bodies. That many parties have an increasingly ethnic flavour to them does not give me any confidence that this fractionalization is a good idea.
A low-hurdle proportional representation such as ours comes close to the ideal of democracy in the sense that it does allow for many different groups to gain representation in parliament. But too much variety comes at the cost of cohesion: many quiet voices fail to represent the needs of the people when a stronger, unified voice could.
Of course there’s a big problem with my convenient plan: getting opposition leaders to cooperate is a particularly outrageous flight of fancy. These people are where they are to a large degree because of their egos. getting two of them, let alone a dozen, to pull together — it’s almost impossible.
But we can dream, no?