Voter apathy: The bane of Botswana’s democracy

01 Nov 2018

By Joseph Balise

In an interview with Radio Botswana Monday morning, a senior IEC official confirmed that only one third of the targeted voting population had already registered to vote by the close of the seventh week of the registration exercise.

With only three weeks left before the closing date of 11th November 2018, there a number of lingering questions that the nation at large should already be asking itself and seeking convincing answers to. The multiple questions include: What is the real cause of voter apathy? Has the IEC mounted enough public education to sensitise the public about this all important fundamental civil right?

Have other stakeholders, especially political parties and civic organizations including churches also played their meaningful role to help educate the voting public on the importance of voting? What ought to be exactly done to lure more eligible voters to register and exercise this fundamental right of voting which comes only once in every five years? How politically conscious is Botswana’s voting population?

There apparently are no easy answers to the above questions. The responsibility to educate and lure voters to the polling booth is not only confined to the Independent Electoral Commission and participating political parties alone. The responsibility extends to other civic organizations as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including churches.

The real cause of voter apathy will never be a simple question to answer. However, the current political instability prevailing within both the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and the opposition coalition of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) should have played a significant role in discouraging eligible voters to register.

With regard to the ruling BDP, the apparent fall out between President Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi and his predecessor Dr Ian Khama, undoubtedly had a major impact in turning off voters. Never before in Botswana’s history has such a large number of sitting Members of Parliament failed to retain their ticket to the general election in the party’s primaries.

There is a strong feeling within the conservative ruling BDP voters that the primaries system dubbed Bulela Ditswe was manipulated and rigged in favour of newcomers especially tenderpreneurs who have of late been joining the party in large numbers. The traditional voters who felt undermined by the direction of the party is taking are not finding any joy in registering to vote hence they are dragging their feet to register and endorse tenderpreneurs who they allege have not joined politics to serve them to instead to protect their own business interests.

As for the UDC, there is discernible displeasure regarding the current state of affairs of the opposition coalition. The UDC leadership is accused of dragging its feet in solving the impasse and rift that led to the formation of Alliance for Progressives (AP), a splinter of the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) which was recently expelled and given 30 days within which to appeal its expulsion from the UDC.

The UDC quagmire is compounded by the uncertainty concerning the admission of the Botswana Congress Party into the opposition coalition which some especially expelled BMD cadres have persistently labelled irregular and unlawful. The vast majority of the BCP voters who are still reeling from the humiliation of the 2014 general election outcome are unhappy that instead of being welcomed into the opposition coalition with open arms, with the sole aim of dislodging the ruling BDP, they are viewed as power mongers hell-bent on benefitting from the goodwill that Batswana had shown towards the opposition collective in the past general election.

Again the looming legal battle between UDC and the expelled BMD is another recipe for voter apathy from opposition voters who feel short changed by the leadership’s inaction in getting its house in order ahead of the general election given the short period of time before the elections are held in October next year.

The infighting within the major political players in BDP and UDC has been a source of concern to a lot of eligible voters who have not yet registered to signal their displeasure on the current state of their parties which to say the least is characterized by unprecedented instability.

The problem of voter apathy appears to be a worldwide phenomenon as International Institute for Democracy Assistance (IDEA) has conducted a number of researches on voter apathy and came to the conclusion that “despite the growth in the global voter population, the global average turn out has decreased since the 1990s”.

According IDEA head of Communications and Knowledge Raul Cordenillo, civic education teaches that showing up at the ballot is the main way the electorate can have a say their countries’ democratic processes.

By voting, the electorates get to select candidates or political parties that represent their views. Through voting, the electorate can determine which laws and policies in realms of education, healthcare and social welfare are sustained or enacted. Therefore, the electorates decide which officials will represent them in determining the direction that their democracy will take.

However, in today’s democracies, voting is no longer enough for a number of reasons. Firstly and unfortunately, not everyone eligible to vote exercises this fundamental right. Some voters do not see a viable candidate or political party to choose from. Some do not just care to vote. This apathy is undermining democracy around the world.

Secondly, democracy does not equal to elections. While what electorates do on election day matters, the electoral cycle reminds us that what happens before and after elections is equally important.

Holding electoral representatives accountable for the policies they stand for is vital are they carried out, or left on the wayside? In between elections, the electorate should participate in public hearings and consultations to make their concerns known.

The electorates need to safeguard the human rights that are afforded by their democracies. For their part, governments and political parties should ensure that they remain responsive to the needs of the citizens. This should not be confined and limited to election campaign periods in a bid get re-elected. Institutions should equally work together to allow for continuous citizen engagement to sustain democracy.

Thirdly, citizens have become more active and vocal in their views. Often by-passing traditional democratic institutions such as political parties, citizens have taken to the streets to protest and exert pressure on the political leadership.