WINDHOEK (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 as the southern African country wrestles with an economic crisis and its biggest corruption scandal.
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.
Geingob's ruling SWAPO party has successfully tackled some of the problems left after decades of neglectful rule, first by Germany and then by white minority South African administrations.
SWAPO is now contending with an economy in recession for nearly three years, one of Namibia's worst droughts and its biggest graft scandal - all of which have conspired to make this vote unexpectedly tough for Geingob, who won by 87% last time.
"I campaigned like hell but if I lose I will accept that. I am a democrat," Geingob told reporters shortly after voting while Popular Democratic Movement opposition party leader McHenry Venaani said he was "very confident of winning".
Geingob faces nine challengers including Panduleni Itula, a dentist-turned-politician who is a SWAPO member but 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.
Under SWAPO, the former guerrilla movement that fought for independence, the proportion of Namibians living below the poverty line fell by three quarters, from nearly 70 percent in 1993 to 17 percent in 2016, according to the World Bank.
The economy has been 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 economy to contract by 1.7% in 2019, which would be its third year of declines in a row.
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.
"I want change. I am sick and tired about corruption in this country which no one is doing anything about," 55-year-old businessman Jacques Kotzee said after voting.
But loyalty to the former guerrilla movement remains high.
"Namibia has gone through a very terrible time," Leevylee Abrahams said after casting his vote. "But I'm voting for continuity because I believe that this government can really improve the lives of people, given a chance again."
Whether the result is close or not, a SWAPO win is likely to be controversial, especially since a 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.
(Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Paul Tait and David Clarke)
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