ISS Today

Botswana’s election will go down to the wire

By Peter Fabricius for ISS TODAY 17 October 2019

If the BDP is defeated next week, will the country lose its reputation for regional stability?

First published by ISS Today

Former president Ian Khama is the wild card in next week’s Botswana elections. His bitter public fallout with his successor Mokgweetsi Masisi has made the outcome uncertain and raised some concerns about political and economic post-election stability.

Up to now, it’s been largely a given that the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) will always win, as it has done in the past 11 elections since independence in 1966. But Khama’s angry departure from the party has threatened to end its unbroken run of victories.

Stung by Masisi’s ditching of many of his cherished policies, damaging his legacy, curbing his ex-presidential privileges, and allegedly using undemocratic manoeuvres to win the BDP’s presidential nomination, Khama is backing a new party. The Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) is an “ad hoc loose electoral alliance” with the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), the opposition coalition presenting the greatest threat to the BDP’s chances.

This alliance could hurt the BDP mainly by splitting its rural vote, especially in central Botswana – the seat of Khama’s Bamangwato chieftainship. This has always been the heartland of the BDP.

But it’s complicated. The BPF was formed recently, and by then the UDC had already nominated its candidates. So in many seats the UDC and BPF candidates are standing against each other, which could split the opposition vote enough to give the BDP victory. And the BDP and many analysts believe that associating with Khama and the BPF will conversely dent the UDC’s chances in the urban areas, which are its stronghold, and where Khama isn’t widely popular.

When Khama was in office, the UDC lobbied for him to be arrested on corruption charges. Now they are in the same coalition. Even within the UDC leadership there is some open dissatisfaction about this alliance. Prince Dibeela, deputy leader of the Botswana National Front, the main party in the UDC, told ISS Today in Gaborone recently that it had been a “blunder” to ally with Khama’s BPF.

Pundits also caution against over-simplifying the electoral arithmetic. In the 2014 elections the BDP lost the popular vote, winning around 47%. It was saved by Botswana’s first-past-the-post constituency system which gave it 37 seats to the opposition’s 20.

Even on a constituency-by-constituency basis, the UDC and Botswana Congress Party’s (BCP) combined votes would have given them more seats than the BDP. In 2014, though, the UDC and BCP were separate. Now they have joined forces in the UDC.

Will that give the UDC victory next week? Not necessarily. One of the many reasons is that the UDC has also changed since 2014, losing two of its important constituent parties. And if Khama is an unpredictable factor in these elections, so is Masisi. Many believe he has made a reasonably good start at cleaning out corruption and building necessary infrastructure and that he is more engaging than the rather austere former military commander Khama.

The net effect of all these changes could be another victory for Masisi’s BDP, two Batswana analysts said at an Institute for Security Studies seminar this week. Both Keith Jefferis, former deputy governor of the Bank of Botswana and now director of Econsult, and University of Botswana political scientist Leonard Sesa, stressed however that the election was still too close to call.

The UDC and others argue that victory for them would put the seal on Botswana’s democratic credentials as it would be the first time power had passed from one party to another.

Economist Jefferis worries, though, that the UDC has made too many populist promises in its election manifesto, such as creating 100,000 jobs (in a population of 2.2 million), tripling the minimum wage and increasing old-age pensions. He fears that tripling the minimum wage would collapse jobs in an economy where unemployment is already some 30% (including those discouraged from seeking jobs).

The only way the UDC could create 100,000 jobs would be in the public service which already employs 45% of the country’s workforce. And that would collapse the economy.

Jefferis and Sesa both predicted that if the UDC/BPF won it would have difficulty holding together because of its internal tensions. Even more so if it failed to secure a majority of seats and had to seek more coalition partners.

Even Masisi and the BDP would face major economic challenges if they won, Jefferis said. Although Botswana has lessened its dependence on diamonds, which contributed about half of GDP 20 years ago to about 20% today, it’s still too dependent on the gems, which constitute about 80% of exports. Strong diamond exports inflate the pula and make other exports uncompetitive, aggravating Botswana’s abiding challenge of diversifying its economy.

Jefferis noted that the BDP – like other regional ruling parties – talks a lot about ambitious economic plans such as creating a knowledge economy and harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Instead what Botswana really needs is just to get the basics right – such as fixing roads and traffic lights; avoiding 3km queues of cargo trucks at the South African border because waybills can’t be accessed online; ensuring schools have textbooks; and cutting back on the public service. Diplomats ISS Today spoke to added a few other vital reforms, such as privatising state-owned enterprises and slashing the state boards that still control much of the economy.

It is striking how many of Masisi’s challenges mirror those of his neighbour South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, including having to retain in his cabinet too many holdovers from the past regime to secure his party base. If Masisi wins, Jefferis says, he has to quickly make the necessary reforms, allowing enough time for them to impact the economy before he faces the electorate again.

For over half a century, Botswana has been an island of peace and stability in a stormy regional sea. But was that stability founded purely on the fact that one party has ruled since independence?

If the BDP is defeated next week, will that change? Will it refuse to accept defeat and provoke an opposition backlash? And if the BDP wins again, will the UDC/BPF cry foul and take to the streets? Most Batswana say no, and they’re probably right. But then again they haven’t really been here before. DM

Peter Fabricius is an ISS Consultant

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