WINDHOEK - Namibians voted on Friday in a general election billed as Africa’s first e-vote, with the ruling party expected to retain power in the country it has run since independence.

Voting began at 0500 GMT across the country, with voters standing in long lines before day break including some first-time “born free” voters - those born after Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990.

“It’s a rich country with poor people, so I hope there is more balance,” said 43-year-old Elias while waiting to cast his vote.

The ruling South West Africa People’s Organisation - better known as SWAPO - was forged from the embers of the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle and has won every election in the 24 years since Namibia’s independence.

Ahead of election day, foreign minister and senior SWAPO party official Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah told AFP victory was inevitable this time around as well.

“SWAPO is going to win. There is no ‘if’, SWAPO is going to win,” she said.

Stations are due to close at 1900 GMT after 14 hours of voting.

Around 1.2 million Namibians are eligible to cast their ballots at nearly 4,000 electronic voting places across the vast desert nation.

Other African nations such as Kenya have run pilot or limited e-voting, but none have done so on this scale. Namibians will choose 96 members of the national assembly and one of nine presidential candidates.

Current Prime Minister Hage Geingob, the man almost certain to be named the next president when the final tally is in, cast his vote in the Windhoek township of Katutura.

“We have plans already, we are not a new party. We have plans that we are going to implement,” said Geingob after casting his vote.

“The second phase is that of economic emancipation,” he added.

Opposition parties had launched an 11th-hour court challenge to stop the vote from going ahead, saying the use of Indian-made e-voting machines could facilitate vote rigging.

But the Windhoek High Court dismissed the application on Wednesday.

SWAPO remains by far the biggest party in the country, but has seen increased criticism of the slow pace of land reform as well as allegations of government corruption.

Former SWAPO member Hidipo Hamutenya left the party to form the opposition Rally for Democracy and Progress.

“Whether we’re talking about health services, medicine, and other services, whether we’re talking about education, it’s a poor record for the last 24 years, very poor,” he told AFP.

He accused SWAPO of using the tools of state to bolster its campaign.

“Democracy, the SWAPO style, is basically a joke.”

Across the country SWAPO election posters and flags are ubiquitous, while material from the cash-strapped and fractured opposition parties is difficult to find.

At the SWAPO party headquarters in the final days of campaigning, staff relaxed outside in the shade, flicking through newspapers, with a nonchalant confidence and no sign of the party machine on the eve of a competitive election.

But the party’s campaign was marred by secretary general Nangolo Mbumba remonstrating with party supporters at the final rally last Saturday.

“Clap hands you poor people” he was quoted as telling the crowd. He later apologised, but an emergency meeting of SWAPO’s politburo met to discuss the backlash.

Still, with Namibia’s economy among the most healthy on the continent, voters seem likely to stick with the liberation party they know, rather than the opposition they don’t, at least for now.

The key test of Friday’s vote will be whether SWAPO can match its 75-percent haul at the last elections.

Attracting female voters with a vow that almost half of its parliamentarians will be women, may help.

Foreign Minister Nandi-Ndaitwah said the drop in the number of women in the last parliament spurred the party to action.

“We really became more aggressive to campaign or to sensitise our members,” she said. “Unless we make it an obligation we might end up, at the next election, even going down further.”

Rosa Namises, a long-time feminist and politician, said the timing was suspicious.

“It is surprising that after so many years, four months or so ago, SWAPO has been calling for 50/50, just before elections. For me it is a vote-buying tool.”