As October 21, the date set for the first phase of Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) primary elections draws near, Government has filed an appeal on Justice Modiri Letsididi's decision that allows public officers to vote in primary elections. Government wants the appeal expedited and heard on urgency on a date yet to be set by court. The demand for urgency and the timing of the application has fuelled speculation that the decision is calculated to protect ruling party activists, among them cabinet ministers and Members of Parliament who wish to contest Bulela Ditswe in just four weeks. In his judgment regarding the precise scope and reach of Section 5(5) of the Public Service Act (PSA) No. 30 of 2009 as regards the exercise of voting rights by public officers in political parties, Justice Letsididi ruled that voting in party primary elections does not constitute political activism as envisaged in the PSA. He reasoned that it could not have been the vision of legislature to promulgate laws that curtail freedoms and rights of workers, and that PSA does not prohibit public officers from participating in primary elections. Government lawyers argue in their grounds of appeal that trade unions do not have a legal stand to challenge the offending sections of the PSA as it does not apply directly to them but to their members. "The court erred and misdirected itself in finding that section 5 of the PSA does not prohibit public officers from participating in primary elections," reads part of the papers signed by Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration minister Eric Molale and supported by Deputy Secretary General of the BDP, Shaw Kgathi. Attorney Mboki Chilisa, who is representing NALCGPWU in the matter, confirmed that they have been notified about the looming appeal and are ready to defend the judgment. The embattled Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU), currently reeling under a multi-million financial scandal, who launched the court case alongside NALCGPWU (Manual Workers) has resolved not to defend the judgment and abide by any outcome. Government is represented by Oteng Thamuku in the matter.
By nullifying the decision to block public servants from voting in party primary elections, Justice Letsididi created a headache for Bulela Ditswe aspirants in 19 constituencies held by opposition parties. Although they have declined to discuss the details of their strategy, Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU), confirmed when welcoming the judgment in July plans to mobilise their members across the country not to vote for politicians who do not support the workers' agenda. As was done prior to 2014 general elections, the federation composed a hit-list of politicians to be targeted across different political parties. The campaign bore fruit when big names like Molale and Botswana Congress Party (BCP) president Dumelang Saleshando fell by the wayside in a contest that saw the then fashionable opposition coalition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) poll 53% popular vote while the BDP dropped to just 47% for the first time in history. The BDP only retained power because of the First Past The Post system used in Botswana. Blocked by a Directive dated 28 November 2013 from the then Permanent Secretary to the President, Eric Molale, shortly before Bulela Ditswe 2013, public officers watched helplessly as their plan to punish some candidates for being "anti-workers" went up in smoke. A hit-list of politicians targeted for decampaigning had been prepared by trade unions representing public officers. Notwithstanding the no-show, the controversial Bulela Ditswe 2013 still produced the highest number of independent candidates even without the influence of workers' votes. Once again, an opportunity for public officers to roll out the post 2011 strike strategy to target politicians at party primary elections could be held at abeyance, should Government win a stay of execution of the Letsididi judgment pending appeal.
Candidates angry over vetting delays
Now, with Bulela Ditswe 2017 just four weeks away some candidates only learned about the status of their expression of interest this week, after the conclusion of appeals from a vetting process that took a long time to complete. There have been complaints from would-be candidates about delays in communicating the verdict, which results in limited campaign period. Such delay has caused frustration and anxiety among some aspiring contestants in the upcoming October 21 polls. Democrats who have expressed interest to campaign for and contest party primary elections in constituencies currently held by opposition parties complain that the CC took too long to finalise the vetting process and give them the green light to mobilise support. They accuse the central committee of taking a lackadaisical approach to the vetting process, despite receiving reports from different branches of the party more than a month ago. Their biggest gripe is that the CC only convenes once a month despite that circumstances of the party have changed over the years, creating a need for more frequent meetings. "We are only about four weeks from October 21. For over a month now these vetting results from branches have been locked away at Tsholetsa house awaiting CC meeting last week. Such practice, where CC only meets once a month needs to be revised. They need to make special provisions for urgent and pending issues that require immediate attention, like in this particular case," said a concerned member, adding that in that way candidates will be given ample time to campaign. Yet another aspirant said those that will be disadvantaged by the delay are those expected to campaign in vast constituency like Lentsweletau/ Mmopane or Okavango in just four weeks. She said those with limited resources will be put at a disadvantage, while those with capacity to deploy enough resources and manpower and those who have been campaigning secretly, will be in good position to win as they can cover good ground in short time or have already done so. "Prospective candidates have been left in the dark. The secretariat is not communicating developments in the party with general membership when the party has websites and social media pages which are cheaper than newspaper adverts. This points to failure in management at party level, but if we cannot run the party how can we succesfully do so at government level?" she asks, clearly frustrated by the turn of events. Insisting that it is time for the BDP to reflect on how they conduct business, the irate propsect said Bulela Ditswe is called this early in recognition of the fact that it is no longer business as usual in local politics. "Reality will hit us hard and we need not only talk about this but change our approach to doing things," she said.