IS the proliferation of ethnic or regional political parties a sign of pluralism and our democracy at work or a failure in nation building and the beginning of a meltdown in national cohesion? Is it a step backwards or a positive development in the country’s short history? Well, time will tell.
But whatever the case, the phenomenon of ethnic or regional parties has always been there and was due mainly to apartheid whose main doctrine of white supremacy and divide and rule nurtured these formations.
The apartheid doctrine that gave birth to various political formations in the past, by its very nature, was against national unity and a common identity. It is in the context of this legacy bequeathed on us by history that current political developments and party formations should be understood.
One thing is for sure though. The emergence of the numerous regional political parties is not likely to upset the balance of power between opposition politics and the ruling party, at least not in the immediate future.
While there may be grumblings among some members of the ruling party about the state of play in their party and its internal politics, there is no evidence to suggest that the Swapo Party is losing members to any of the opposition parties. If anything, it has been the beneficiary of the division of opposition parties.
Lately, a number of smaller parties and splinter groups have emerged. The recent party to be formed is the Democratic Party of Namibia (DPN) from the south of the country. The party was founded to address marginalised minorities, particularly in the south and central areas of Namibia according to its leaders.
The Caprivi Region currently hosts at least two local parties – Candidature for National Unity or CANU under schoolteacher Robert Kamwi Sililo and another National Democratic Party (NDP) founded by Martin Luketo.
Next to the Caprivi in the Kavango, a new party, the All Peoples Party (APP) was launched this year. While the party says it is a national party, there is no doubt that it derives its support mainly from the Kavango.
Parties such as Nudo, the United Democratic Front (UDF), Republican Party (RP), MAG, Namibian Democratic Movement for Change (NDMC) and others are ethnic based or are dependent solely on the support of specific minority groups.
Clearly, the proliferation of ethnic or regional parties vindicates the failure of opposition politics to unite around a common agenda. Opposition parties have failed to develop an alternative viable programme from that of the ruling party. Their formation, to a large extent, is motivated by personalities and the desire to rule. Therefore, the biggest casualties of these splinter groups are opposition parties themselves.
This is not to say the formation of regional parties is a bad idea. Their emergence may as well be a blessing in disguise. These parties may help activate politics at grassroots level and thereby raise political awareness and ensure mass participation in politics.
Another positive would be that of keeping the bigger parties on their toes and in check and to get them focused on service delivery to the people. They may force inclusiveness as opposed to exclusiveness although the latter may actually become true. Similarly, the political hold of these parties on their constituents may be difficult to break. Here, Nudo and the UDF’s exploits in constituencies in Omaheke and Kunene respectively come to mind. The two have proven unbeatable in these constituencies, not because they articulate best policies but simply because blood is thicker than water.
Put differently, competition is always good and thus the emergence of these parties might enhance competition and ensure quality debate on national issues and good policies.
The downside, however, is the potential for ethnicity and division. When parties organise around issues of tribes and regions, the possibility is there for tribalism and polarisation to flourish. It is this fine line that these regional parties must toe lest they fun the flames of tribalism and disunity.
Equally, the big parties must take note of recent developments and adapt accordingly. They have to look at shortcomings within themselves and become even more inclusive.
While democracy is about different viewpoints and political formations, too many parties that are driven by sectarian interests or ethnicity may actually undermine the very democracy.