Voter apathy and the political repercussions

By Lt Gen (Rtd) Denga Ndaitwah

NAMIBIA as a nation was under German colonial suppression and the South African white minority apartheid regime for over 100 years. However, for almost 30 years now Namibia has had her political independence and Namibia’s people have been exercising their democratic rights through elections.

As suppression has its own costs, so does democracy. The most expensive part of democracy is its maintenance by way of holding periodic democratic elections.

Based on our democratic principles as enshrined in the Constitution, the Namibian people shall go to polls to cast their votes to elect their President and Members of the National Assembly (NA) on 27 November 2019 for a new mandate when their five years in office expires.

Chapter V, Article 28 of Namibia’s Constitution, stipulates that the President shall be elected “by direct, universal and equal suffrage … provided that no person shall be elected as President unless he or she has received more than fifty (50) per cent of the votes cast and the necessary number of ballots shall be conducted until such result is reached.”

Similarly, Chapter VII, Article 49 on the election of members of the NA states that “Election of members in terms of Article 46(1)(a) hereof shall be on party list and in accordance with the principles of proportional representation as set out in Schedule 4 hereof.”

As we go to polls this year, the centre of gravity of this article shall be on how I perceive the political situation in the country. As reflected in the heading, there seems to be voter apathy in this country.

I made a brief analysis of data from the African Elections Database. The analysed data includes statistics on Namibia’s democratic elections of 1989, 1994, 1999, 2004 and 2014. I shall also reflect on the recent Ondangwa Urban and Oshakati East by-elections, respectively.

During our first democratic and national elections in 1989, there were 701,483 registered voters. Of that number, 680,758 voters cast their ballots representing 97% of all registered voters. One would guess that the remaining 3% did not vote due to natural causes and attrition.

Further, an important question to ask is: why such a high turnout? A simple answer in my view is that all political parties and their followers were aiming at winning the bigger chunk of the first political and democratic cake and people were all yearning for peace, freedom and independence.

Our second Presidential and NA elections were conducted in 1994. That year we had 654,189 registered voters, of which 497,508 (representing 76.08%) of the electorate cast their votes. Statistically, the political trend has shown a downward curve, as the number of registered voters dropped by 156,681, who absented themselves from voting that year.

There were 878,889 registered voters in 1999 when registered voters showed the highest level of apathy, as only 545,465 cast their votes, representing 62.10% of registered voters. The number of registered voters who did not make it to the polls was unbelievable high, totalling 333,424.

It is also interesting to note that 1999 was the year when Congress of Democrats (COD) was formed and took part in its first election. Hypothetically, one would have expected a high turnout triggered by the formation of COD, instead, the number of those who cast their votes was minimal.      

In 2004, voter participation picked up significantly. There were 977,742 registered voters, of which 827,042 cast their votes, representing 84.6%. This was the second highest turnout after the first elections. However, 150,700 registered voters abstained from voting.

That high turnout may have been triggered by two things. One, it was the first time in the history of the Swapo Party leadership that there was a change of command between President Sam Nujoma and President Hifikepunye Pohamba, who also stood as the party’s presidential candidate and eventually won elections overwhelmingly.

The second factor that may have contributed to the jack up of voter participation was perhaps the internal political friction in Swapo Party that gave birth to the Rally for Democracy and Progress.

The year 2014 witnessed the second political change within Swapo Party structure between President Hifikepunye Pohamba and President Gage Geingob. That year we had the highest ever number of registered voters (1,241,194). Those who turned up and cast their votes numbered 893,643, representing 71.76% of all registered voters, but 347,551 opted to stay away. There was thus a drop in terms of the percentage who cast their votes.

Moving now to the recent and current by-elections at Ondangwa and Oshakati, respectively, the two elections have shown voter apathy of the highest order. Ondangwa Urban by-election had over 16,000 registered voters, but only 3,794 cast their votes. That means the remaining of over 12,000 eligible voters opted to be fence sitters and onlookers.

With regard to the Oshakati East by-election, there were over 18,000 registered voters, but only 3,413 cast their votes. The remaining over 14,000 decided not to take part in that election by preferring not to exercise their democratic rights in a free and independence Namibia.

From the above analysis, the bottom line and the compelling force of writing this article, was to express my profound concern with regard to voters’ apathy. I may not be qualified to bring out the root causes of voter apathy, but what I want to emphasise here is that democracy is a perquisite of life that as Namibians we cannot escape, as it is here to stay for as long as this nation is in existence.

But at face value, why is there voter apathy? It may be presumed that there are some voters who may not fully understand the essence and value of exercising democracy. There may be also some eligible voters who had high expectations during the first and subsequent elections, who may not have reaped the reward of their expectations.

There may be some potential voters who have no good reasons to leave their comfort zones and cast their votes, like it was deemed necessary by many during our first democratic elections in 1989. They may consider going out of their comfort zone as a waste of time as their votes may not count and make a difference.

Another aspect that demands critical thinking is the reality that there is drastic reduction in the generation that went through hell and witnessed the notorious apartheid regime in of this country. That is the generation that was yearning for peace, freedom and independence. As nature takes its course, that generation is now becoming minimal.

As that generation comes to the end of its life, the upcoming generation has different ways of thinking and appreciating things. Their mind-set is not necessarily about liberation struggle credentials and supreme sacrifices made during the war by those who participated. Their aspiration is for a better life and wealth.

As a nation we must not just fold our arms without asking ourselves about the possible causes of voter apathy and what should be most effective panacea to address and eradicate it.

As the nation gears up for Presidential and NA elections before the end of the year, our leaders together with the Electoral Commission of Namibia are the most qualified and able to find out the causes of voter apathy and to devise effective ways and means to remedy the situation. That can be done through intensive voter education.

* Lt Gen (Rtd) is the former Chief of the Defence Force, holder of Master’s degree in Strategic Studies, HOD and senior lecturer at IUM. The views expressed herein are his own.