Botswana’s tight electoral contest presents unforeseen risks for Africa’s democracy poster child

Mokgweetsi Masisi
President of Botswana Mokgweetsi Masisi

In its 53 years in power, the governingparty, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has never come this close to losing an election. True, it has seen its support dwindle over time, and most notably lost the popular vote in the last election in 2014.

Back then, it was able to retain power because of a combination of the first-past-the-post electoral system and its dominance of the Central Region of the country, which contributes 19 out the 29 seats needed to win a mandate to govern.  Things have changed, and the tables in the election in six weeks are completely turned.

The Khama factor

The most significant risk to the BDP’s electoral fortunes is the party’s fallout with its former president, Ian Khama. Most visible through a public personal spat with his successor Mokgweetsi Masisi, it has seen Khama form his own party, the Botswana Patriotic Front, to contest the election. Whilst Khama has no illusions of wrestling power from Masisi and BDP, he can hurt them really badly. It was Khama who presumably saved the BDP when its popularity declined, especially in rural areas. As chief of the Bangwato (the majority ethnic group in the Central Region), he was drafted in to shore up his subjects’ support. Their allegiance to their Kgosi improved the fortunes of the BDP. Now that he has severed ties with BDP, many of his subjects may follow suit. Ian Khama’s brother Tshekedi, long touted as a possible successor to Ian and then Masisi, resigned from the BDP last week – signaling an irreparable rift.

Some estimates, including his own, are that Khama and his new party can get at least 14 seats. That’s  easily enough to badly hurt the BDP. Even so, in other constituencies that he is unlikely to win, he is openly encouraging voters to ditch the BDP in favour of the opposition coalition, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), led by Duma Boko, and comprised of three parties: his party, the Botswana National Front (BNF), the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) led by Dumelang Saleshando and the Botswana Peoples Party (BPP) led by Motlatsi Molapisi. Khama’s sole agenda is the defeat of Masisi and the BDP. In any event, any sense of politicising ethnicity or ethnicising politics especially in Africa is not just bad but dangerous.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

As for the opposition, there is little that binds them together ideologically besides a common desire to oust the BDP. Prior to Khama stepping down, they were bound by a common desire to punish Khama for what they alleged was his excessively authoritarian rule. But now with Khama offering them support, ambivalence has set in and they can neither condemn him openly nor continue to call for accountability as they previously did. One notable change in the opposition coalition is the inclusion of the BCP. In the last election in 2014, Saleshando declined to join the coalition. And when the opposition and independents garnered more votes than BDP, he was blamed for handing over victory to the BDP.

Analysis shows that had he joined the coalition, the opposition would have garnered 33 seats, enough to win outright. This time round he did not want to make the same mistake. But beyond that, he is widely respected and seen as a moderating influence in the coalition. Duma Boko, the leader of the coalition, is a charismatic individual and seasoned politician who has been on the scene for some time and popular with young people. He has made the most populist and attractive electoral promises of all – creating 100,000 jobs, quadrupling pensions to P1,500 ($136), doubling the minimum wage to a P3,000 ‘living wage’ and increasing student allowances by 56% from P1,600 to P2,500. Never mind the scanty details on how this will be funded by the fiscus, this is likely to attract some voters. Not to be outdone, Masisi has himself provided populist salary increases to the army, prison workers and the police. This may come in handy for him later in a tussle to retain power.

Corruption – the elephant in the room

Masisi and BDP have made dealing with corruption a major issue in the election. But, this is seen as code for dealing with corruption allegations related to Khama and his allies. One of these is Isaac Kgosi, Khama’s spy chief. He is in Malaysia, where he says he is seeking medical attention.

But, corruption allegations have been contagious. Masisi, himself has not been spared of accusations of knowing and doing nothing – as vice-president, about the looting of P250m from the Petroleum Fund, benefiting several individuals. In his founding affidavit to court, Bakang Seretse, the key suspect in the looting of the fund, made unproven allegations about both Khama and Masisi. They maintain their innocence. Whilst corruption has remained a concern in the country in recent years with high-level scandals, very little has been done to curtail it.

On the campaign trail, there have been concerns regarding the undisclosed financing of the campaign including allegations of support for Duma Boko from controversial South African businessman Zunaid Moti, who provided planes and helicopters for the UDC campaign. The aircraft was seized by the revenue service in what some saw as an act of partisanship in favour of the BDP.

It is unclear to what extent it will have a bearing on the outcome of the election. In view of the fact that all candidates are in one way or the other alleged, accused or implicated albeit remotely, it may really turn out to be a non-issue.

So, who’s winning?

Never in history of the country has the result of an election been so uncertain. Fitch Solutions has put the BDP’s prospects of winning at 35%. But, it does not mean that the opposition coalition, whose prospects Fitch places higher at 40%, will win either. If Khama’s prediction of taking 14 seats holds, garnering the 29 seats required to win may prove elusive for both the BDP and the opposition.

Deal or no deal?

In the absence of an outright winner, a hung parliament is likely to result. Only a coalition government may be able to govern. That may make Khama a kingmaker, and there areno prizes for guessing where he will be casting his lot in view of his spat with the BDP. Then again, a day in politics is too long. A deal may yet be struck with Khama by the BDP to bury the hatchet. Negotiating with a stronger hand, Khama could return to the BDP with greater sway. With the prospect of losing power altogether, the BDP may do any deal to stay there. Whatever the outcome, everyone needs to start seriously thinking about a deal of some sort.

If the opposition aligns with Khama – if he too wins the 14 seats he hopes – then Botswana will for the first time in history have a new party in government. This is highly likely. But, is the country, the BDP and the opposition itself ready for this outcome? In the worst case, a hung parliament may bring with it political instability of the kind seen in Lesotho. Parties will need to quickly learn how to share power and govern together.

Letting go is never easy

53 years is a hell of a long time to be in power. Experience from elsewhere in Africa and the world has shown that the longer a party is in power, the less likely it is to give up power willingly even when it loses elections. There are many reasons for this including and especially the political economy. Political patronage systems dominate the landscapes of many countries. The political and economic elites work hand in hand to leverage the political and commercial levers of power. An election result can readily torpedo these systems. The high stakes of losing not just political but economic control with obvious implications on personal livelihoods make losing an unacceptable outcome for political elites in many countries. Examples of ruling parties in the region that have lost elections and refused to give up power include Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe. In other countries, such as the DRC, the prospect of losing has driven ruling parties into election rigging frenzies. Worse, in some cases, parties have resorted to violence to stay in power.

Contested outcomes

Whatever the case may be, the higher the electoral stakes, the higher the likelihood of a contested electoral outcome. This is likely to be the case in Botswana. Should this ensue, what should we expect?

The classical caution to electoral contestants is always to follow legal and peaceful means to contest outcomes they are unhappy with. In most cases, this is the route some take. But, in many African elections, the legal route to resolving electoral disputes is the least attractive to losers. Factors such as lack of independence, partisanship and lack of impartiality by the courts and justice systems have led opposition parties to reject outright the use of the courts to adjudicate electoral disputes in many countries, including in Kenya in 2008. Even when parties do use the courts, such as in Zimbabwe in 2002, 2008, 2013, and 2018, the courts often either drag their feet until the next election – rendering the petition useless, or when they do hear the petition, fail to deliver reasoned judgement up to a year later, as they did in the presidential election in Zimbabwe.

So, whether losing political contestants opt for judicial resolution depends on the levels of trust and confidence they may have in the judiciary and its independence. In Botswana, the most recent example of a court-led electoral dispute resolution is the petition by President Masisi’s rival for the BDP presidency, Pelonomi Venson- Moitoi.  In that case, several judges recused themselves alleging possible conflict of interest. Botswana is a country with a very small population and such conflicts are commonplace with personal relationships the order of the day.

The relationship between the executive and judiciary in Botswana has also not been good. Prior to stepping down, Khama suspended several judges and forced them to apologise before reinstating them in a move that was widely regarded as a significant incursion into their independence. The bitter taste of this infringement looms large as the country approaches potentially contentious elections.

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst

If you ask Batswana, they will tell you that they are a peaceful and tolerant people who will never use violence against each other -especially for politics. Whilst this is largely true, it is also false. There have been instances of election-related violence in previous elections. In addition, that there has not been violence before does not mean they can never be.

It can be triggered by perceived flaws in the electoral process, lack of trust in those running elections. It can be used by one party to intimidate and force particular electoral choices by voters, as happened in Zimbabwe in 2008. It can also be triggered by an outcome that is perceived as not reflecting the will of the people, as was the case in Malawi.

Experience of elections and violence from around the world shows that there are many drivers of election-related violence and the changes in space and time can drive hitherto peaceful communities into confrontation.

The greatest responsibility to avert chaos lies with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the body responsible for managing the election. This will be the toughest election it will ever have run. It will also have to be the cleanest. The process will have to meet the transparency and credibility test in every respect in order for the outcome to be credible and acceptable. Domestic and external observers will be needed to verify the transparency and credibility of the process and the extent to which it is an accurate reflection of the will of the Batswana.

An architecture for peace

Undesirable as it maybe, is therefore possible that the election could bring with it some violence. For this reason, there has to be a certain level of preparedness to prevent it. Many countries come back from the brink because there exist within societies an architecture for peace – in other words  institutions, systems, individuals that transcend the political spectrum to build and promote social cohesion. It is the peace architecture that helps societies ride the wave of political turbulence. Botswana will need its own architecture ready and on standby to bring the country back from the brink should it go there.

But, this time around the region’s and the continent’s poster child for democracy will also need help from the outside as it seeks to navigate its greatest political test ever.

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