By Catherine Sasman
With details still sketchy about the newly registered Rally for Democracy and Progress, political commentators are doubtful if it will make a dent in the SWAPO Party support base.
The new party registered last Friday with the Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN) after rumours were rife that top-level members of the SWAPO Party might jump ship over differences and disgruntlement with SWAPO president, Dr Sam Nujoma.
These rumours were rubbished by many SWAPO Party leaders, including Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, who unambiguously stated that he is not in any way attached to plans to start, or join any new political formation.
But former SWAPO Party member and Minister of Trade and Industry Jesaya Nyamu’s association with the Rally for Democracy and Progress in some way confirmed to some political pundits that there is indeed involvement of a SWAPO Party splinter group in the new party.
A statement made by Hidipo Hamutenya in an interview with Insight, where he was quoted as saying that there is “enough space for me in the Namibian political landscape”, further underpins such speculation.
Nyamu has, after all, been seen as a close ally of Hamutenya during the controversial and heavily contested SWAPO Party Extraordinary Congress of 2004 that saw President Hifikepunye Pohamba emerge as the preferred presidential candidate.
And amid speculation that fractious groups within the Congress of Democrats (CoD) might join the new party, CoD president, Ben Ulenga, merely stated: “The CoD has nothing to do with the new party. We have heard about it in the newspapers. It is not linked to the CoD.”
He also flatly added, “There are no factions in the CoD.”
Academic Andre du Pisani said there is “hardly any political space left in the centre” for any other political organisation.
“SWAPO controls the political centre. There is not space on the right or left of SWAPO. That may change for the organisation if it does not deliver any radicalisation for any other party to occupy a significant space. Unless a new party renews its leadership and articulates a clear policy platform that provides an alternative, I foresee a dominant party system that will remain for some time to come.”
Du Pisani said opposition parties have a further impediment because they have little opportunity to garner and mobilise support and resources.
“I am not convinced this new party will provide an alternative of ideology and policy. The SWAPO government has been in power for more than 17 years and has framed the country’s long-term vision for development. It has thus more or less left an imprint on all key policies. It would be difficult for any other party unless it provides genuine trajectory for development.”
Political analyst, Henning Melber, said the new party “certainly does” herald a split in the SWAPO Party.
“But one should also note that the split was already visible since mid-2004, and had an incubation period before it became obvious to the outside world,” said Melber.
He said the issue was on the table already with the dismissal of Hamutenya and the marginalisation of others from the party, as well as the expulsion of Nyamu.
“The smooth registration process of the new party indicates that it was a well-planned and prepared move, which poses a challenge. They seemingly did their homework. From now on, assuming that several prominent SWAPO members will join the new party, SWAPO will never be the same again,” commented Melber.
A source preferring anonymity, however, was doubtful whether a breakaway from the SWAPO Party is a viable option.
“Is there a precedent of this happening and working? After all, SWAPO is a political party with a two-thirds majority and over the past decades ignited popular appeal. We can all speculate on the reason for this, but it remains a brave move,” considered the source, adding: “One could say that this move is long overdue, leading to some kind of end game that has been happening over the last five years when it appeared that the leaders had stopped under a tree, going backwards. The notion of ‘collective will to include everyone’ has become something for history books as Namibians seem to embrace a culture of mediocrity,” the source said.
However, went on the source: “But I am scared of this as it has been done very secretively – obviously – but I am not sure if it is the right way to go about this. The question remains do people stay on to fight within, or step aside and fight from the outside? SWAPO is entrenched in the hearts and minds of people, even those deeply critical of the party; the loyalty is still there and the question remains whether that can be turned around. The other worry is that this will sadly be perceived as a personality-driven event, but what people often forget is that the delivery of development is not a personality-driven thing.”
Another analyst, Phanuel Kaapama, said while the new party has not made any pronouncements on its ideological position, Nyamu “might be alone” and thus would not make a dent in the SWAPO Party support base, likening it to when Ulenga left SWAPO to form the CoD.
“During the 1999 election, the biggest losers were the opposition parties. A vivid lesson and trend from there is that no opposition party has made any inroads on the SWAPO votership,” said Kaapama.
“The whole issue is still in the dark. Does this signal a commitment from those who formed the party to seek another political home or are they trying to manipulate the outcome of the SWAPO congress?” Kaapama asked, suggesting that it could merely be to cause “panic” within the SWAPO Party.
Graham Hopwood of the NID said there is no evidence of a split in the SWAPO Party, saying that he suspected that the new party consists of a “very small” group supporting Hamutenya.
“The opposition is in a very poor state, and having a new party might make it more interesting for opposition parties,” added Hopwood.
Melber was of the opinion that the new party might bring about a regrouping “to some extent” of the opposition parties.
It might stand a realistic chance to emerge as the most “relevant” political opposition of SWAPO, “which, however, does not in itself mean a lot, given the dismal record of opposition parties in Namibia so far”.
“The new party – depending on the figureheads it can present – might for the first time be a serious challenge to SWAPO’s hegemony. This will not only depend on the new party’s political office- bearers but on the other, more subtle voices rendering at least indirect support,” said Melber.
“One does not need to join the new party or advertise it. Under the current circumstances it is already good enough if SWAPO veterans with a meticulous track record in the anti-colonial struggle openly declare that it is the democratic right of anyone to form a new party. This shows a different notion of democracy than the authoritarian mindset of the Nujoma faction and indirectly renders support to the kind of political permissiveness and tolerance which is a necessary positive ingredient of a plural society,” said Melber.
With the registration of the new party just weeks ahead of the SWAPO Congress, Melber suggested that it makes the point that the congress is no longer the “relevant point of reference”.
“Much remains to be seen, particularly with regard to those who will openly take sides and have so far not been visible in the Nujoma camp or the Nyamu/Hamutenya camp. It will be interesting to see who is showing his or her orientation prior to the SWAPO Congress. It might be that not many come out now, but that the intention was merely to create the new party prior to the congress as a fait accompli. To that extent, the timing could have been carefully chosen to set the agenda in a different way than planned by those who had orchestrated the congress setting until now.”