On February 5, 2020, the Supreme Court of Namibia ruled on a legal challenge of the results of the 2019 presidential election in Namibia (The Associated Press 2020). This ruling came just a few days after the constitutional court in Malawi annulled the results of the 2019 presidential election due to irregularities in how votes were counted (Jegwa 2020). In Namibia, presidential candidates who had lost in the 2019 election challenged the result and called for a new election because the government used voting machines that did not have a verifiable paper trail (The Associated Press 2020, Smith 2019). The candidates who filed the lawsuit argued that the use of the electronic voting machines violated an Electoral Act that required the use of electronic voting machines with paper trails (de Bruyn 2020). While the Supreme Court agreed that the use of electronic voting machines without paper trails was invalid and should not continue for future elections, they did not believe there was enough evidence that the voting machines had actually been manipulated and decided that the election results should be upheld (The Associated Press 2020). As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the incumbent President Hage Geingob of the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) will remain in power after winning 56% of the vote (The Associated Press 2020). The candidate with the second highest number of votes was Panduleni Itula, an independent candidate, who received 29% of the vote share (The Associated Press 2020).
To fully understand the importance of the 2019 presidential election outcome and the subsequent court case in Namibia, it is necessary to examine the broader political context and electoral system in Namibia. It is important to note that Namibia is a fairly young democracy, as the country just gained independence from South Africa in 1990 (“The World Factbook: Namibia” 2018). Since gaining independence, Namibia has elected presidents for five year terms using a two-round (if needed) absolute majority popular vote (“The World Factbook: Namibia” 2018). Importantly, President Hage Geingob’s party, SWAPO, has been able to maintain power in Namibia since the country became independent (Melber 2019). In fact, in the 2014 presidential election, Hage Geingob was elected with 87% of the vote (Melber 2019). While SWAPO has been dominant in government since 1990, there are currently twelve opposition political parties in Namibia, though many of them have very little representation in the government (“The World Factbook: Namibia” 2018). Despite using a majoritarian system to elect the president, Namibia uses a closed list proportional representation to elect the legislature (“The World Factbook: Namibia” 2018, Reynolds, Reilly, Ellis, & Cheibub 2005). Given the differences in the electoral systems, it is likely that the legislature will be more representative of people’s viewpoints due to the fact that proportional representation systems allocate parliamentary seats to political parties in a way that is proportional to the parties’ national vote share.
In light of the political and electoral context in Namibia, the results of the 2019 election and the resulting legal challenge seem even more significant. Prior to this election, the SWAPO party had been extremely dominant in Namibian politics, so it is noteworthy that Panduleni Itula was able to gain 29% of the vote share and felt he had enough power to challenge the results through a lawsuit to the Supreme Court (Melber 2019, The Associated Press 2020). In addition to the significant drop in support for Geingob, the SWAPO party also lost its previous majority in Parliament, as they gave up fourteen seats in the election (Agencies 2019). While Itula ran as an independent and therefore did not represent a political party, the Popular Democratic Movement was able to increase their seats in Parliament from five to sixteen (Agencies 2019). As of now, it is unclear how the growth in representation of the Popular Democratic Movement will impact politics and future elections in Namibia, but it seems to indicate that the political playing field in Namibia is becoming more fair. In addition, this challenge could impact perceptions of electoral integrity in Namibia. Even though the Supreme Court did not find that there was enough evidence to say the SWAPO party had manipulated the machines, the publicity surrounding the lawsuit on its own could have increased scrutiny over the electoral process in Namibia among both citizens and international actors. Furthermore, the Supreme Court did find that the government of Namibia violated an Electoral Act by using electronic voting machines without a verifiable paper trail, which could be a strong enough finding to lead to increased doubt about the integrity and validity of the election.
To summarize, the results of the 2019 election in Namibia and the opposition’s strength to legally challenge the results signal that Namibia is beginning to move away from the one-party dominated government that has existed since the country first gained independence. However, it remains to be seen how exactly the election and the Supreme Court’s ruling will impact the political landscape in the country and the next election. It is possible that the opposition parties and voters who opposed President Geingob and SWAPO will be propelled by their significant parliamentary gains in this election and continue to gain power. However, it is also possible that they will begin to doubt their political efficacy and ability to remove President Geingob from power after failing to gain a majority or win their legal challenge and, as a result, citizens could vote at lower rates in the next election. Political scientists should consider the following questions when looking at the impact of the 2019 election and the legal challenge of the results: how will voters and political parties respond to the changes in the political landscape? Specifically, will voters be more likely to vote for the opposition parties in the future or will they become discouraged and vote at lower rates overall? Will the SWAPO Party and President Geingob resort to authoritarian tactics to regain their dominance?
Agencies. “Namibia Election: President Wins Second Term despite Scandal and Recession.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 Dec. 2019, www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/01/namibia-election-president-wins-second-term-despite-scandal-and-recession.
de Bruyn, Estelle. “Election Court Challenge Set for This Month.” The Namibian, 16 Jan. 2020, www.namibian.com.na/196656/archive-read/Election-court-challenge-set-for-this-month.
Jegwa, Peter. “Malawi Election: Court Orders New Vote after May 2019 Result Annulled.” BBC News, BBC, 3 Feb. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-51324241.
Melber, Henning. “Namibian Elections: the Sands Are Shifting — Slowly.” The Conversation, 27 Jan. 2020, theconversation.com/namibian-elections-the-sands-are-shifting-slowly-127656.
Reynolds, Andrew, et al. Electoral System Design: the New International IDEA Handbook. International IDEA, 2005.
Smith, Sonja. “Namibia’s Independent Candidate Challenges Election in Court.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 18 Dec. 2019, apnews.com/9a3b259965ad4ce0677d5608b8763ece.
The Associated Press. “Namibia Court Upholds Results of Presidential Election.” New York Times, 5 Feb. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/02/05/world/africa/ap-af-namibia-election-challenge.html.
“The World Factbook: Namibia.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Feb. 2018, www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/wa.html.