November 27, 2019 / 5:50 AM / 15 days ago

Namibians vote in tight contest clouded by economic crisis

* Toughest contest yet for scandal-hit ruling SWAPO party

* Drought, low uranium prices have hurt economic growth

* Namibia faces a third year of recession in 2019

WINDHOEK, Nov 27 (Reuters) - Namibians voted on Wednesday in what was expected to be the toughest contest yet for the party that has ruled for three decades of independence, an election it was still expected to win despite a brutal economic crisis.

President Hage Geingob, Namibia’s third leader since the sparsely populated and mostly arid country freed itself from the shackles of apartheid South Africa in 1990, is seeking a second and final term from 1.3 million registered voters.

He faces nine challengers including Panduleni Itula, a dentist-turned-politician who is a member of the ruling SWAPO party but is running as an independent. Itula is popular with young people, nearly half of whom are unemployed.

Concurrent legislative polls will elect 96 members of parliament, testing SWAPO’s 77-seat majority. Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and close at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT).

Results are expected within 48 hours.

A sputtering economy, one of Namibia’s worst-ever droughts and the biggest corruption scandal in its history have conspired to make this election unexpectedly tough for Geingob, who won by 87% last time.

The economy has been stuck in a recession for the past two years, marred by a drought that ravaged agricultural export crops, as well as by unprofitably low prices for Namibia’s main hard commodities, uranium and diamonds.

The Bank of Namibia expects the domestic economy to contract for a third year in 2019, by 1.7%.

A scandal in which two ministers were alleged to have conspired to dole out fishing licences to Iceland’s biggest fishing firm, Samherji, in return for kickbacks has also taken the shine off the ruling party.

Whether the result is close or not, a SWAPO win is likely to be controversial, especially since the court threw out a case mounted by the opposition against the use of electronic voting machines it fears will be used to cheat.

The military said in a statement it was on high alert for violence, which Namibia has avoided in previous polls. (Reporting by Nyasha Nyaungwa; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Paul Tait)

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