What Voter Apathy Means For Namibian Democracy

24 Nov 2015 16:30pm
By Anna Salkeus

WINDHOEK, 24 NOV (NAMPA) - At exactly 14h30, a prominent member of society was supposed to address a fully packed political rally, but the anticipated crowd - the loyal political party supporters who usually dance to party songs - was nothing but four people.
The rally organisers, dressed in their finest attire of party colours, sat at the head table, trying their best to endure the loud sound from the public address system blasting party songs through their ear canals, almost emulating the feeling of uprooting a tooth.
Two hours later and a few more people trickle in, but none of them are the candidates running for the upcoming elections.
Another hour goes by before the huge yellow tent starts filling up and the candidates also arrive. The rally finally kicks off with the first speaker taking to the podium at 17h05.
A few years ago, this scene of an election rally would have differed significantly - stadiums and tents were always packed before the main guest/s arrived.
With political and voter apathy seemingly becoming more and more common at political rallies across the country, it seems an election every five years is not enough and rallies lack the powerful ideology to inspire people to bind themselves as citizens with one common purpose.
The scenario is an indication of disinterest in the Regional Council (RC) and Local Authority (LA) Elections slated for Friday countrywide.
At another election rally in a town north of Windhoek, candidates contesting the LA Election turned up an hour-and-a-half late.
People interested in the candidates’ message had been seated, some standing because of limited seats, under a white tent that barely kept the radiating sun's heat from seeping through and irritating every individual who had been waiting without being offered any explanation or apology for the tardiness of the prospective town council and constituency council candidates.
Some of the party supporters could no longer stand it and soon after the main speaker had taken to the podium, one person yelled comments like “Okahandja was not built in one day!”. He was clearly not impressed with the rally.
Poverty eradication, provision of housing, land, water, sanitation and electricity and the condemnation of social evils like drugs and alcohol which lead to crime and other atrocities have been the promises of every political rally during the recent election campaigns.
However, some campaigners seem to have failed to realise that what they are promising, the potential voters already know, and that what people actually want to hear are realistic, implementable and practical issues that will be pursued immediately after votes are cast.
Political experts gave their perspectives on what voter apathy means to Namibian democracy.
Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) Executive Director, Graham Hopwood told Nampa that in the LA Election, there should be a turnout of over 60 per cent, because one expects LA and RC elections to have lower turnouts than Presidential and National Assembly Elections.
“When they go as low as 30 to 35 per cent which was the case five years ago, it affects the credibility of the elections. One just hopes that the party and the Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN) are doing enough voter education work to encourage voters to participate and that at least 50 per cent or more of the registered voters take part,” he said.
Lecturer in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Namibia (UNAM), Phanuel Kaapama elaborated that there may be different factors that contribute to voter or political apathy, one being that voters may have made up their minds already about who they are going to vote for.
He said there are however voters who are disgruntled and have given up hope on the political structures to solve their problems. Kaapama feels that political parties should reach out to such voters, rather than expecting voters to come to them.
“In our electoral system, very few parties do house-to-house mobilisation and focus more on rallies, even though rallies have not proven to be the most effective strategies,” he said.
Kaapama noted that supporters who go to rallies are those who are already ‘converted’, adding that political parties are supposed to target those who are not yet converted to their cause and are usually the ones who do not attend the rallies.
On candidates’ tardiness, he said those candidates send out a “bad image and reflection” of themselves.
“That also in a way reflects our political system. There is a wheelbarrowing of candidates - some of them cannot stand on their own two feet and defend their position or even demonstrate to the voter that they can think for themselves,” Kaapama said.
The United Democratic Front (UDF) has taken a door-to-door approach in addition to rallies held in some of the towns where it will contest the LA Election.
UDF president Apius Auchab said the door-to-door campaigns have been very effective thus far, as it created a platform for people to engage with the party’s candidates directly, because they would not get the same opportunity to ask questions at ordinary rallies.
He said people are tired of rallies which are “boring as they have been done all along”.
UDF held door-to-door campaigns in Khorixas, Uis, Okombahe, Omaruru and Swakopmund. Auchab said people were very open and welcoming to the visits.
The Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN) Director, Professor Paul Isaak commented on the issue of voter apathy, saying the RC and LA elections are of high importance to each voter, because it deals directly with their living situation – the “bread and butter issues” which they encounter daily.
He said “disinterest in voting is a sign of disservice to democracy”.
“Namibia is one of the countries cemented on the principles of democracy, of which voting is one of the key elements in order to stabilise that democracy, as well as the prevalence of peace in the country,” said Isaak.
He strongly advised candidates to promote what they are standing for because they themselves will be accountable to the people.
“They themselves should demonstrate their capabilities so that people can really start to trust them,” said the elections chief.
If candidates are spokespersons for their convictions it is a sign of a working and progressive democracy, he noted.