The Myth of Democratic Consolidation in Namibia

21st October 2009 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

The elections in Namibia during November will mark the 4th round of national democratic elections since independence in 1990. The preceding 3 have generally all been classified as ‘free and fair' and there is little to indicate that the 4th will be any different. , Some analysts would argue that regular free and fair elections demonstrate that democracy is ‘the only game in town' and that the formation of (admittedly small) opposition parties like NUDO (National Unity Democratic Organisation), RDP (Rally for Democracy and Progress) and others are clear signs that the democratic space has opened up.

Furthermore, the 2008 Afro-barometer Round 4 (R4) opinion survey and the supplementary research conducted by the Namibian-based Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that, ‘democracy is what Namibians have known since independence and it continues to find substantial support in Namibia'. The survey concluded that:

* 63% of the respondents have shown consistent support for democracy since the first Afro-barometer survey in 1999;
* A ‘large' number of respondents consider Namibia to be a ‘full democracy' or a ‘democracy with only minor problems';
* 67% find elections in the country to be ‘completely free and fair'; and
* A majority (52%) find the present economic conditions fairly very good, while 58% expect things to improve.

There is, therefore, much to celebrate. Yet it is arguably too early to conclude that Namibia is indeed a ‘fully- fledged' democracy.

Although regular free and fair elections are one of the most important indicators to gauge the quality of democracy, elections and (at least moderate) economic performance are not the only requirements that need to be satisfied in order to achieve consolidation. Others include the presence of functioning electoral systems, institutionalisation of the electoral processes and a strong participatory civic culture. As Guillermo O'Donnell rightfully observes in his 'Illusions about consolidation' (1996), the informal practises (behavior pattern) of actors in the body polity matter greatly in measuring the state of democratic maturity in any given country. In terms of this perspective, consolidation is achieved when the actors in a system follow the formal rules of the democratic institutions. Unfortunately, that is not always the case in Namibia, reflected in renewed incidents of politically motivated violence between supporters of SWAPO and RDP (a SWAPO splinter group) in places like the Wanaheda informal settlements in Windhoek, Oshikoto region and Outapi and in Katutura. It is clear that some political actors in Namibia do not yet follow formal rules of democratic institutions to operate within the general accepted legal framework. For example New Era and other media outlets reported early this year that SWAPO and RDP members were stoning and chasing each other away and certain areas have been declared "no-go areas". In terms of Namibian electoral law the Electoral Commision of Namibia (ECN) is entitled to issue guidelines for the conduct of elections by political parties that are legally enforceable (Electoral Act 1992, 43(2)). However, even though the ECN adopted the ‘Code of Conduct for Political Parties' in 1994 and political parties are required to sign it in the run up to elections, enforcement by ECN and compliance by political actors is still lacking.

Using his ‘polyarchy' concept, Robert Dahl (1971) suggests six minimal requirements and/or preconditions that democracies have to meet in order to qualify as consolidated democracies. These include free and fair elections, universal suffrage, right to run for the office, freedom of expression, alternative source of information and freedom of association - a number of which are under threat in Namibia, particularly around freedom of expression and access to information. In March this year, for example, there was a spate of public complaints about the decision of the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) to shut down the morning Chat Show. Many opposition parties alleged that the closure of the programme was part of a strategy used by the ruling party to clamp down on media freedom ahead of national polls this year. The Chat Show was temporarily restricted in November 2007 for a few days, when callers were not allowed to discuss either SWAPO or the newly established RDP for several days.

One of the symptoms of democratic consolidation is the absence of undemocratic behavior and/or undesirable (violent) political culture. This might be in the form of opposition harassment, acts of political intolerance and violence, monopolization of the democratic space by actors closely linked to power and state machinery, abuse of state resources by the ruling party or uneven distribution of such resources to gain greater advantage over other political parties during election campaigns. Observably, though not at an alarming rate, some of these anti-democratic behavior and undesirable political subcultures are teething in Namibia.

Of particular interests here are the reported incidents of political violence and apparent irregularities in allocation of airtime to political parties during the election campaign period. Serious concerns have been raised by opposition political parties, especially on ‘deliberate' neglected grey areas and perceived biase around allocation of airtime in state owned media and also around the allocation of funding to political parties. In the 2006-2007 financial year N$16.5 million (Namibian Dollars) was set aside from state coffers for party-political funding and out of that amount N$12.5 million was allocated to SWAPO. More so, during the last elections, 150 minutes of airtime were given to the ruling party and opposition parties each got less than 30 minutes, with an exception of the Congress of Democrats (CoD) that got 31 minutes. While these allocations do reflect the number of seats that the ruling party has in parliament it hardly translates into a level political playing field given the numerous other advantages that accrue to a governing political party.

Recently, the Namibian Police (NAMPOL) Chief Inspector General Sebastian Ndeitunga advised the political parties to abandon their door-to door and/or shebeen-to shebeen campaigns in the run up to November elections. He warned that ‘parties that had chosen to defy the police advice would be doing so at their own peril'. All of this despite the fact that Article (17) of the Constitution of the Republic of Namibia grant Namibians the right to participate in political activities intended to influence the composition and policies of the Government and to participate in the conduct of public affairs, whether directly or through freely chosen representatives. By advising political parties to engage only in limited political activities for fear of violence, the Chief Inspector covertly tell us that Namibia is not a peaceful country where political parties can freely campaign for votes. He also conveys the message that:

* The country's democracy is not immune from undemocratic predispositions. It is still vulnerable to destabilising factors such as political intolerance/violence.
* Monopolisation of democratic space is becoming a feature of Namibian political discourse.

Evident from these examples, the state of democracy in Namibia is not so ‘consolidated' and rosy as public surveys would have us believe. Democracy has not yet been fully consolidated. Regular free and fair elections, satisfaction with leaders and promising economic performance should not be construed as tacit consolidation, but rather they should be seen as part of a range of enabling factors.

It is fair to characterise Namibia as a successful case of a developing democracy rather than a ‘fully -fledged' democracy. Similar to most countries in the region the country is still undergoing democratic consolidation and transition from an authoritarian past. Moving forward, Namibians from all works of life are indeed proud of their country's achievements. However, they cannot be oblivious of the political challenges such as growing political intolerance and monopolisation of democratic space - challenges that can eventually deter rather than consolidate democracy.

Written by: Thembani Mbadlanyana, Junior Researcher, Office of the Executive Director, ISS