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Namibian Elections Expected to Return Ruling Party to Power

Namibia's longtime ruling party is expected to return to power in Friday elections but its hold on this desert nation may weaken with the emergence of a new opposition party.

President Hifikepunye Pohamba is seeking a second five-year term. He is also hoping for a decisive win for the country's former guerilla movement, the South West African People's Organization, or SWAPO.

But a breakaway faction wants to take advantage of growing dissatisfaction with SWAPO after a spate of corruption scandals, including one involving the son of China's president.

The Rally for Democracy and Progress, or RDP, headed by former foreign minister Hidipo Hamutenya was formed in 2007, citing a lack of new ideas and a repressive political atmosphere.

"If you enjoy an absolute majority with no resistance from opposition for too long, problems such as nepotism and corruption may become major issues," said Emile van Zyl, executive director of research for financial services company Simonis Storm Securities. "A stronger opposition will be good for the country as long as it does not lead to instability."

Fourteen parties are taking part in the elections with 12 contesting the presidential poll. About 1 million registered voters will cast their ballots Friday and Saturday. Results are expected December 4.

Namibia, a vast country about half the size of Alaska, is home to nearly 2 million people. It is a secluded tourist haven known for its spectacular sand dunes, coastline and wildlife. Hollywood stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt put Namibia on the international map when they decided to have their first child there.

A former German colony that was then ruled by neighboring South Africa, it is a peaceful and stable democracy. Namibia has rich diamond and uranium deposits but about 40 percent of Namibians live below the poverty line. Unemployment is high and AIDS has had a devastating effect especially on the indigenous San Bushmen.

However, the Namibian government has been praised for its sound economic policies and making strides in broadening access to education and health care.

But its record has been tainted by a corruption scandals and concern over Namibia's relationship with China.

The Namibian military chief was suspended over a probe into corruption allegations against Nuctech, a Beijing company. The company was trying to land a lucrative contract to supply Namibia with security scanners. At the time, it was headed by the son of China's president, Hu Haifeng.

Some Namibians feel that the party that fought for independence has failed to deliver on its promises, says analyst Judy Smith-Hohn from the South African-based Institute for Security Studies.

President Pohamba was hand-picked by the country's first democratically elected president Sam Nujoma, one of southern Africa's liberation heroes. Nujoma led a 27-year-long bush war against apartheid South Africa which had annexed the territory.

He became president with independence in 1990 and amended the constitution to allow him to run for three terms.

Loyalties to Nujoma are still strong but there are worries about the influence he continues to exert.

Hamutenya had been a SWAPO member for 30 years — and a front runner to succeed Nujoma — before he quit to form the RDP. He said at the time that there was an urgent need to rekindle people's hopes of democracy.

Analysts believe that a landslide victory for SWAPO, which won the last elections with 75 percent of votes cast, may be less convincing this time round.

"While the RDP won't be able to challenge SWAPO's rule, it will be able to take a few votes, minimizing the percentage of parliamentary seats the former liberation movement has," said Smith-Hohn.

There have been clashes between SWAPO and RDP supporters but it is unlikely that the election will be marred by violence.