Botswana poll: Ruling BDP faces first serious challenge in 53 years

Botswana poll: Ruling BDP faces first serious challenge in 53 years
Botswana's Independent Electoral Commission officers wait for the arrival of ballot boxes from other polling stations in Maun before counting of the votes was expected to begin on Wednesday night, 23 October 2019. (Photo: supplied)

The Wednesday election is widely regarded as the tightest in history for the ruling Botswana Democratic Party which has been ruling the southern African nation since gaining independence from Britain in 1966.

Botswana nationals headed to the polls on Wednesday 23 October 2019 after several months of heated campaigning marked by a fight between former president Ian Khama and President Mokgweetsi Masisi, his successor at the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).

About 931,000 of the country’s 2.2-million people registered to vote in the parliamentary and local elections.

Before this vote, it’s been largely a given that the BDP will win, as it has done in the past 11 elections. But Khama’s sudden departure from the party in early 2019 has since brought uncertainty not just to the usual BDP victories, but also to the peace and stability of the landlocked nation.

Following the vote, acceptance of the result has been seen as a key test of Botswana’s democracy — largely perceived as “Africa’s shining example” over the past several decades.

While Khama’s storming out of the BDP is seen as one of the key determinants of the vote in some parts of the country, other voters certainly used a different card to decide.

In Maun — a semi-urban tourism town in north-western Botswana usually referred to as the “Gateway to the Okavango Delta” — during the buildup campaigns, voters have been clear of their concerns relating to ongoing wildlife and human conflict as well as the participation of locals in the tourism sector.

The human/wildlife conflict, highlighted by the death of some residents involving wildlife, mainly elephants, has also been at the centre of a dispute between Khama and Masisi.

After taking office in April 2018, Masisi, among other things, reversed Khama’s policy relating to the hunting of wildlife. During his tenure as president, Khama — a friend of animals for many years — had banned the killing of wildlife, including elephants, as part of his efforts to conserve the animals. The move, however, saw the number of elephants vastly increasing, coinciding with attacks by the animals on villagers in communities next to national parks and reserves.

Maun residents and other villages in rural Botswana affected by wildlife/human conflict opposed the Khama hunting ban — they believe killing some of the animals could help reduce their population and thus minimise the tension.

At the same time, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), the opposition coalition presenting the greatest threat to the BDP’s chances, has made it clear that lifting the hunting ban is not a permanent solution to the problem — a pronouncement that could irk some voters in affected communities who want the animals killed.

Interestingly, Khama’s newly formed Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) has gone into an “ad hoc loose electoral alliance” with the UDC. The duo’s alliance is likely to strike another blow against the BDP in the central district, from where Khama originates and doubles as chief of one of the major tribes. In the last elections, the BDP saw its share of the vote dip below 50% for the first time — a trend that gives the opposition bloc hope for victory in these elections.

Adding insult to the BDP injury is the country’s level of unemployment, estimated to be more than 18% by Statistics Botswana. The diamond-rich nation is also ranked among the most unequal countries in the world, third to South Africa and Seychelles.

An hour before the closing of polling stations on Wednesday, most across the country had reported peaceful and smooth voting, except for one in the central part of the country.

In a press statement halfway through the voting on Wednesday, the Independent Electoral Commission confirmed that one of the polling station’s local government elections had been called off after it was discovered that one of the parties’ names was missing from the ballot paper. The IEC said a new date — 23 November 2019 — had been set for the poll to take place.

In a tweet, UDC leader Duma Boko swiftly moved to call the postponement a cause for concern as it could impact his party’s performance in the parliamentary seat race. He said the concerned polling district is among his party’s strongholds in Mahalapye East constituency — a parliamentary-level contest.

Boko expressed worries that the announcement by the IEC that it had cancelled the local government elections for the polling district could cause some voters to abandon the vote. The IEC officials told journalists at a press conference in the capital Gaborone that voters in the affected polling district will be allowed to participate in the parliamentary vote only.

Citing the incident, some elections observers said should the opposition react negatively to the postponement, this could cause tension throughout the country.

Any tension over the election outcome — expected by the end of Thursday 24 October — could damage Botswana’s reputation as a beacon of democracy and stability in Africa.

Should the polls favour the opposition coalition it will be the first time Botswana has had a change of government in 53 years. DM


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