Contrary to the much hyped cliché that "there is still no alternative" peddled by Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) activists to lure voters and destroy opponents around elections period, political science researchers have found that its influence is on the decline, at the expense of a united opposition. Further, researchers confirm long standing complaints by opposition politicians that the ruling party abuses state resources, particularly state media and other resources, to sponsor internal party activities. In a ground breaking analysis of critical aspects of Botswana's unique democracy, contained in a book titled "Botswana's Parliamentary Democracy Revisited", launched in Gaborone last Friday, scholars and experts delve into the past and present to deliver a refreshing and fascinating assessment of political developments in the country. One interesting chapter, written by High Court judge Dr Zein Kebonang and ABM University deputy Vice Chancellor Dr Gape Kaboyakgosi, unravels "The Political Party System: Explaining the Predominance of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP)". The role of the Khama family as a source of political capital for the BDP, regionalism, particularly the importance of the Central District to the BDP, and the power of incumbency have been identified as key factors that make the BDP a dominant political party in Botswana.
In addition to being favoured by the departing colonial British colonial protectorate since inception in 1962, the BDP was also preferred by the elites of the time, researchers found. The elites included teachers, farmers, chiefs and businessmen who regarded its centrist and pragmatic policies as better options than the radical alternative offered by the Botswana People's Party (BPP). A more important factor was the reverence accorded to one of its founding fathers, Sir Seretse Khama. Much loved and respected, Khama was a charismatic politician and a paramount chief of Bangwato, Botswana's most influential ethnic grouping. "He was able to endear himself to the public through politics of moderation, whereas the opposition espoused radical politics, which alienated the general populace. The current President, Ian Khama, who is the son of Sir Seretse Khama, was initially brought into the BDP as Vice President to continue tapping into the Khama legacy," observes Kebonang and Kaboyakgosi.Khama's marriage to a white woman, Ruth Williams -which was a taboo across the world in the 1950s and the predictable harsh reaction from white racist regimes in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was also a masterstroke that earned him respect and sympathy from his countrymen. Such respect was further enhanced among the then largely rural Botswana when Khama later abdicated his royal position, which was interpreted as preparedness to sacrifice for the good of the young nation. The two researchers opine that this factor perhaps explains the great affinity of the voters for the BDP. To buttress the point, they cite the example of 2004 elections when the then vice president Ian Khama made history becoming the only candidate to stand unopposed in general elections in Serowe North East. "When he became President, his brother Tshekedi was selected to succeed him in the constituency and in 2008 had a walk-over against a distant relative – Ms Nthebolang – representing the Botswana National Front (BNF). To show the futility of her attempt the former minister of Defence, Justice and Security, Ramadeluka Seretse, allegedly joked with her, Badimo baa gana boela lapeng (our ancestors are not happy, come back home)," the researchers find.
The Khama factor works for the BDP in a number of ways. Researchers note that while generally Batswana are not often associated with regional voting patterns, it is clear that the north of the country generally votes BDP while the south is where the opposition has gained most of its votes. The political north refers to large parts of the Central District (and other constituencies north of Dibete) where the founder of the BDP originated. Since the first general elections in 1965, the opposition has never returned Member of Parliament in the Central District. Further illustrating the significance of the Central District to the BDP, of over 139 council seats in the district, only 12 are held by the opposition. In the districts outside the Central District opposition parties have managed to capture over 30% of the council seats available. While the district holds about a quarter of the total population of the country, it is home to 17 parliamentary constituencies, which at present translates to a third of the total number of seats available in Parliament.
Incumbency (Abuse of state resources)
Being the party in power, the BDP has exploited incumbency to its advantage. It has done so by coming up with policies that appeal to the many poor citizens of the country, such as Botswana's extensive social support nets. In addition, as the party in power, the BDP has consistently claimed credit for progressive policies that appeal to voters such as reduction of the voting age from 21 to 18 years, introducing some welfare oriented initiatives such as free education, Ipelegeng and old-age pensions, concessions to the youth, internship programme and the constituency football league. In their expert analysis, Kebonang and Kaboyakgosi conclude that by deploying public finance into areas that were traditionally campaign fodder for the opposition, the BDP has made, and is likely to make opposition less attractive to voters’ particularly conservative ones. Such policies as old age pension were traditionally proposed by the BNF, ignored by the BDP, but later introduced and adopted by the BDP, thus turning into an effective campaign tool for the party. Incumbency has demanded that certain conduct or protocol in government be observed, which sometimes blurs the line between government and party politics. An example is given of accepted 'protocol' at the government television broadcaster, Btv, to cover both the President and the Vice President at political party activities. Unlike any other, the BDP's party political statements are also read on national television and radio. While the opposition sees this as an abuse of state resources, the BDP has argued that it is entitled to do so by virtue of it being the party in power. "While the BDP enjoys unfettered access to state and public resources, it is unlikely that the opposition would ever be afforded such an opportunity," the researchers note. The use of state resources for party politics extends beyond just the President and the Vice President, to include cabinet ministers. Often, while on official duty, government ministers will use such opportunities to transact party business, giving BDP the platform to reach as many people as it can. It is now common practice that a minister addresses kgotla meetings in the morning and proceeds, at government expense, to meet and address party structures on the same day. The power of incumbency is also reinforced through the mechanism of specially elected representatives to both parliament and Councils. In terms of the Constitution, the President has the power to nominate to Parliament six members under the specially elected provision. Similarly the Minister of Local Government is empowered to nominate additional councillors. Successive BDP Governments have used this mechanism to dilute opposition support in councils and where the opposition has the majority of seats and to augment their own numbers in Parliament. No opposition politician has ever been specially elected, at least in Parliament.
Making a comparison with developments elsewhere in the continent, kebonang and Kaboyakgois, observed that ruling parties in Africa are able to win elections consistently partly because they are able to use public resources to alter playing fields in their favour. This, they say, is achieved through distribution of jobs, allocation of Government contracts and patronage, and increasing the cost of supporting opposition by withholding contracts, services and benefits from opposition members. Public resources such as state owned vehicles, the national radio and print media, and employees may also be used to mobilise voters. The private sector may likewise be tacitly encouraged to make campaign contributions to the ruling party in exchange for government protection and tenders. Such resource imbalances tend to skew the political playing field in the BDP's favour, as political competitors' resource base is unmatched. "In Botswana, the argument may be extended that this works to the advantage of the ruling party, which is then able to mobilise resources in support of its political agenda. One of the examples is the 1999 general elections, when the BDP received P2.4 million from unknown external donors, thus allowing the party to allocate each constituency a campaign vehicle. The BDP is able to reduce internal dissent by awarding losing candidates jobs, often in diplomatic services, as well as deployment to the civil service. Added to the foregoing, the ruling party has dominated coverage in the national media to the detriment of the opposition," the researchers point out.
Aided by incumbency, the BDP's ability to attract high profile members with easy name recognition is another explanatory factor for its continued dominance of electoral politics in Botswana. Until 2014, with the advent of the UDC, the opposition was largely unable to widely attract high profile individuals. Incumbency allowed the BDP to operate an efficient patronage system that has kept the party cohesive, allowing the party to attract and retain high ranking officials from both the private and public sectors. The BDP has been able to draw into its ranks national leaders such as Mompati Merafhe, who like Khama was a former Commander of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF); former Bank of Botswana Governors and Permanent Secretaries in the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning Baledzi Gaolathe and Kenneth Matambo (also former Chief Executive Officer of BDC), and former Permanent Secretary to the President and employee of World Bank Festus Mogae. The current Minister of Health, Dorcas Makgato was the Chief Executive Officer of BEDIA and Chairperson of Botswana National Sports Council (BNSC) while the Minister of Trade and Industry, Vincent Seretse, previously served as CEO of Botswana Housing Corporation (BHC) and Botswana Telecommunications Corporation (BTC). In the private sector the name of motor magnate Satar Dada – the BDP Treasurer – stands out of the pack ahead of many other notable businessmen of repute, who are BDP members. Apart from increasing numbers, such high profile recruits bring new ideas, resources and organisational skills to improve party administration as well as boost credibility. Across the aisle, with the exception of former BNF President Dr Kenneth Koma who was an academic of note, opposition leaders lack the name recognition that Sir Seretse Khama, Sir Ketumile Masire, Festus Mogae, Ponatshego Kedikilwe and Ian Khama have had. Since the advent of Kgosi Bathoen II of Bangwaketse, who led and entrenched the party in the Ngwaketse area, fewer prominent personalities joined the opposition until the arrival of disaffected ex-BDP members to form the opposition Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD). These included Tawana Moremi, Ndaba Gaolathe, Sidney Pilane, Botsalo Ntuane, Gomolemo Motswaledi, Phillip Makgalemela, Patrick Masimolole, Sedirwa Kgoroba, Wynter Mmolotsi and Gilbert Mangole. Most of them had either previously been prominent BDP members and/ or high ranking Government officials. Their arrival gave the opposition a boost. Numerous other factors have also been found to have entrenched the BDP as a dominant political party in Botswana among them the influence of the electoral system, a fragmented and thus ineffectual political opposition, and resource asymmetries between the BDP and the opposition which favour the former.
The BDP's electoral performance is enhanced by the way in which the electoral system used in Botswana is configured. The First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system has over represented the BDP and under represented the opposition in Parliament. Under the FPTP system, which has been in use since 1965, victorious candidates need only obtain a simple majority. Whereas opposition parties have consistently improved their popular vote, this has not necessarily translated into the same proportion of parliamentary representation. A good example is the rise in popular vote of the Botswana National Front (BNF) from 14% in 1969 to 27% in 1989 reaching an all-time high of 37% in 1994 before dropping after the 1998 split to 25% in 1999. Interestingly, the newly formed breakaway Botswana Congress Party BCP) garnered 11% at their first polls in 1999 rising to 19% in 2009 and reaching an all-time high of 20% in 2014. In both cases the rise in popular vote did not amount to much because they could not make an outright majority. With particular reference to 2014, the combined popular vote for the three party alliance Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), BCP and other opposition parties collectively makes 53%. Inversely, despite decline in popular support from an overwhelming 80% share of the popular vote during the first elections in 1965 to 65% in 1989, and the party eventually dropping to just 47% in the 2014 general elections, the BDP retains an imposing majority in Parliament.
Post 2014 decline
Notwithstanding the dominance of the BDP Kebonang and Kaboyakgosi observe that there are signs that the party's influence is declining. Among factors for its decline are ongoing complaints about economic mismanagement, high unemployment amongst educated youth, BDP factional battles, the willingness of the opposition to work together and the growing attractiveness of the opposition as an alternative to the BDP.