WINDHOEK, Namibia (AP) — Namibia’s ruling party on Wednesday faced its biggest challenge since independence nearly three decades ago as people fed up with a weak economy went to the polls. The resource-rich southern African nation’s registered 1.3 million voters were choosing the president and National Assembly members.
The ruling SWAPO has been shaken by a new corruption scandal that led to the former justice minister’s arrest on Wednesday. Meanwhile, more than 700,000 of the country’s 2.5 million people have registered for relief during a drought that affects much of southern Africa.
President Hage Geingob faces a challenger from within his own party who is running as an independent. Dr. Panduleni Itula has been appealing to youth; some 46% of them are unemployed. The election includes more than 400,000 voters born since Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in 1990.
“I am here because I want to vote for change. Change in education as some of us from poor backgrounds cannot afford to pay for (university) education,” said one first-time voter, 21-year-old Lavinia Ruben.
Itula’s last-minute legal challenge to Namibia’s use of electronic voting machines was rejected. The country was the first in sub-Saharan Africa to use the machines in 2014.
“If I was the judge, I would have dismissed the case as well, my lawyer did not present the case well,” Itula told The Associated Press.
There were scattered reports of delays and troubles with the voting machines on Wednesday. “It's a big concern, and such tech glitches do not help but fuel suspicions about rigging. If anything, it bolsters Itula's case,” said political analyst Ndumba Kamwanyah, warning that some candidates might not endorse the election results.
Geingob after voting called elections a contest, not a war, the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation reported.
An unprecedented runoff election might be needed if no presidential candidate can get over the 50%-plus-one vote threshold. In the last election, in 2014, SWAPO won 80% percent of the vote, its highest share ever, while Geingob won 87% of the presidential vote.
The ruling party was shaken this month when two cabinet ministers resigned after Iceland’s biggest seafood company, Samherji, was accused of paying bribes to local politicians and officials for access to Namibia’s fishing quota, a key economic resource along with mining.
Political analysts have said they do not expect the scandal to have a big impact on the vote as many people already had made up their minds.
“My thought so far is that Namibia is going have a free and fair election,” said the head of the African Union observer mission, Ernest Bai Koroma, around midday.
Other candidates included Namibia’s first female presidential candidate, Esther Muinjangue.
The official opposition Popular Democratic Movement, led by McHenry Venaani, largely campaigned around the issue of SWAPO’s two-thirds majority in parliament, which Venaani says has fueled impunity and graft.
Venaani on Wednesday said elections can never be free and fair with the voting machines, expressing skepticism about transparency.
The Landless People’s Movement led by Bernadus Swartbooi has focused on land expropriation in Namibia, which has one of the world’s highest inequality rates.
“I want change, someone who will get us out of this poverty we live in,” said one voter, 47-year-old Johannes Nekongo.
“I want change. We have no electricity, we live in the shacks, hoping that one day things will change,” said voter Hedwig Kanana, 45. “My vote will make a difference.”
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