Panelists at a discussion on "the state of democracy and the level of economic development in Botswana" held in Gaborone midweek are in agreement that the country's democratic credentials are in regression. University of Botswana academic Professor Balefi Tsie said the problem is that parliament in Botswana is very weak, with a third of the MPs sitting in the Executive.
This arrangement, he said, compromises the independence of Legislature as collective responsibility binds cabinet ministers to decisions made by the Executive. The situation presents a serious democratic deficiency, said Prof. Tsie, citing former Speaker Ray Molomo's book on the independence of parliament to buttress his point. He said to compound the problem the Constitution confers too much power on the President who is the head of the Executive arm of government.
Prof. Tsie further said parliament and councils-the legislative arm of local government are not representative of the diversity of the cross section of society where underpriveldged groups like the youth and women are not represented. "The electoral system in the country should be reviewed to reflect proportional representation of the whole population in decision making," he said.
Prof. Tsie also expressed concern that state media is not autonomous like in other developed democracies like the BBC and SABC, which opens it to abuse and bias towards the political administration. He said although state media has a duty to promote government programmes and policies, this should not be done to the detriment of other stakeholders in the economy. Opposition parties, and international observers of local elections have repeatedly pointed out that state media in Botswana is biased in their reportage favouring the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) at the expense of other players.
Similar sentiments were expressed by the chairman of Editors Forum Spencer Mogapi. He said state media is more dangerous that the dreaded DIS, as it stifles debate on issues of national interest. Mogapi said the current government is patronising, and that all reforms proposed by BDP are self serving to retain power and not to improve the standard of living of the population. He cited unemployment, prohibitive immigration laws, slow economic growth, escalalting poverty levels and deteriorating quality of education as major indicators of a democracy in regression.
Notwithstanding the criticism Prof. Tsie said the fundametals of democracy remain intact as people continue to enjoy their civil and political rights, there is press freedom and "free and fair" elections continue to be held every five years without a hitch. "Even the opposition is within striking distance from taking over power from the BDP, if the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) joins the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) as planned," he said.
On the contrary Lawrence Ookeditse-the panelist representing BDP said other political parties enjoy coverage from three local private radio stations and newspapers. He said it is ironic and unfair to criticise state media of bias when the ruling party dorminates coverage even in the private press. "Everybody, icnluding the media continue to enjoy their freedoms, as demonstrated by this very gathering where you can openly criticise government," he said. He dismissed claims that opposition could topple the BDP, saying available statistics from past elections shows the contrary. He said the BDP government has done well even under accusations that it has created a welfare state because without such interventions the population would wallow in poverty without access to opportunites. He said through BDP government intitatives, particularly the aggresive fight against HIV/AIDS life expectancy has improved from 48 to 64 per cent.
BOFEPUSU president Johannes Tshukudu said democracy in Botswana is regressing due to inexistent political awareness among the citizenry, which in turn makes politicians unaccountable. He said unlike the three former presidents, there is no consultation and dialogue under President Ian Khama's regime. "There is no tolerance. The current regime personalises criticism creating limitations and intimatdating citizens. Government has become too reactionary, hence the standoff with trade unions. For the first time in history we saw an opposition MP literally thrown out of parliament for expressing a divergent view. This has created paranoia among citizens. Social dialogue has collapsed, hence the highest number of state vs workers court cases in the history of this country. I am not even sure if Iam safe after this presentation," said Tshukudu.
To demonstrate regression Tshukudu workers are on slave wages and cannot afford decnt life, as government refuses to increase their salaries while thousands of graduates roam the streets due to failure by government to create jobs. He said government is suspicious of citizens, which results in her taking six months to vet only seven representatives to the Public Sector Bargaining Council. He also said the problem is not helped by a weak civil society, which is compromised by overreliance on government funding. "No state has ever won against trade unions. If you want to leave office early try and curtail trade unions," he warned the BDP government in a parting shot.