Many a commentator has analysed the outcome of the 2014 general elections and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This, because without question the preceding polls were the most competitive in the memory of many voters, especially the youth cohort of our population. The results point to the intensity of the campaign and for BDP the decline in both popular support and the number of seats harvested ought to give the party pause for reflection because on a different day the outcome could have been worse. But all said, by retaining power the BDP lived to fight another day and this provides ample space for the party’s reinvigoration. Nothing is more difficult than trying to resuscitate a party that has lost power.
And this part of the world is unforgiving to vanquished independence/liberation parties because theysink into permanent oblivion upon ceding power. In a way what BDP experienced was history repeating itself because the party has been there before.As a young activist I was a polling agent for Gaborone Central in 1994 when BDP went through a similar experience at the hands of a resurgent BNF,which registered an unprecedented 13 seats out of 40 for the BDP’s 27 on a popular vote of 54%. In the process the BNF increasedits parliamentary representation by an additional 10 seats from thethree seats attained in the 1989 poll which was contested under 34 constituencies in which BDP won 33 on 65% popular vote.
By all accounts the BNF scored a splendid performance in 1994; a fact which to some observers positioned the opposition party for a final assault on power in five years time. As the record would show that was not to be the case in 1999 and the recriminations and rancour continued for many years afterwards as to who was to blame for letting BDP off the hook. In echoes of the post 1999 scenario another blame game is currently playing out itself in opposition ranks with respect to the 2014 polls. As for BDP the pertinent question which might help navigate the future is how did the partyback in 1994 react to thedecline? A lot happenedand those developments were a case study on how a waning ruling party can reinvent itself to remain relevant to voters.
Unfortunately scholarshaven’t sufficiently documented the story of how the BDP revived its fortunes. In brief, after the shock at BNF gains inroads had worn off, BDP embarked on a process of renewal culminating in the adoption of a broad based reform agenda at the extraordinary congressin November 1995 at Sebele. Representing the University of Botswana branch I was an accreditedobserver at that critical gathering which in my opinion was the most significant political meeting in the country since independence.
After all the deliberations andresolutions would determine if BDP could reassert its dominance or was a spent force destined for the opposition benches come 1999. Some of the reforms were internally generated following years of debate whilst others were a concession to opposition and civil society demands made over the years. But in a democracy, proprietorship over reforms amounts to little if those in power reject them. They simply remain ideas for freedom square and academic jousting. Hence the BDP was all encompassing in its approach. Of the reform agenda the most notable were a presidential term limit, reduction of voting age from 21 to 18, external balloting and on an administrative level the formation of the Independent Electoral Commission(IEC).
The ruling party also attended to housekeeping matters such as corruption allegations and other malfeasance which had badly affected its credibility ahead of 1994. Thesedramatic changes to our political landscape, combined with the BNF implosion in Palapye a year before the elections,which I submit was triggered in part by the BDP reform agenda, delivered 33 seats out of 40 and a popular vote of 54% in the 1999 polls. And the BDP was back in its familiar territory of political dominance. The BNF returned with six seats and its splinter the newly formed BCP with a solitary legislator. Let it be noted that the factors which brought about last year’s decline are not the same as twenty years ago, but for those of us who were in the thick of the actionthen and now, there are quite a number of parallels between the two polls.
Anyhow with five years to the next elections the most animated oppositionvoices, albeit uninformed about the pastI just alluded toare already writing BDP’s obituary.Mind you all this is taking place against a backdrop of a party that wields a two thirds majority in parliament and is therefore not constrained from governing in terms of its manifesto and other electoral pledges. At local government level the opposition is in control of only four authorities out of 14, even without the artificial weighting brought about by nominated councillors. Given trends of power balance the world over, BDP is comfortable. Be that as it may these positives do not sufficiently mitigate the erosion of overall support, a fact which has become a source of not only bragging rights to the pro opposition lobby but to them also a sign that BDP is walking its last mile.On this basis the unfolding conversation aroundthe survival and consolidationof the governing party is unsurprising. As has been admitted, theprotest vote visited on BDP has caused it damage, but the excited narrative from the pro opposition camp about BDP’s impending demise is premature and a tad exaggerated.
The situation can be reversed as has happened before. For startersall the fundamentals that have been instrumental to the success of the ruling party, and by extension the progress of our country over the years remain in place. The BDP has maintained fidelity to its character of a nationalist movement committed to delivery of social justice through prudent policy interventions. In addition by rejecting tribalism the party has been a champion of nation building. Allied withan unflinchingcommitment to delivery of the national development agenda, as reflected in our positive development indices, including a growing middle class, these are some of the factors that explain the party’s victory two months ago. But in light of the new circumstances the question is, can the party reclaim its traditional dominance? As is already evidentwithin BDP and outside, discourse on this subject is underway regarding a reform agenda.
This conversation will blossom as we go forward. And blossom it should because every democracy is work in progress and must be reformed as and when conditions call for such. For starters as part of the reform conversation I venture that the hour has arrived to introducein our electoral system a hybrid of proportional representation(PR) with the current single member plurality system, or first past the post(FPTP). Further to thatlet us look within the region for inspiration. The Namibia electionsthis past November continued with the PR method introduced in 1991 at independence. Likewise in South Africa since 1994they have a similar model though there is growing advocacy for introduction of a hybrid system. Reforms have also come to Zimbabwe wherefor the 2013 elections they introduced a mixed member parallel system. Lesotho embraceda hybrid model for the 2002 elections after the winner takes all method proved impractical in a small and politically unstable society.
The recently released final draft constitution of Zambia which will be adopted in time for the 2016 polls also proposes a mixed electoral model away from FPTP in use since the 1991 return to plural politics. As has been opined by elsewhere, the vexed issues of gender equity, exclusion of vulnerable groups and most importantly the compensation of value to every ballot cast will never be achieved through our current electoral system. Even in Britain, the agitation for provision of some form of PR is growing by the day because the progressive world is moving towards more inclusive governance where as many political players as possible should have a voice in national affairs.
Clearly FPTP is an endangered electoral model and deservedly so. There are many other reforms that come to mind which should be considered before 2019 and which should emerge as the debate gains traction. As we converse about reforms the existential question facing every ruling party is, can it rule forever? The answer is no; in functionaldemocracies parties do not rule forever. But if they remain alive to reforms which in turn promote reinvigoration and a renewed sense of purpose, parties who have enjoyed long term tenure have proven they can prolong their stay in power from one election to the next.The fact that BDP holds the record of longest ruling party in the democratic Commonwealth is because throughout the years it managed to stay relevant and responsive to national aspirations. With this in mind and twenty years after the reform agenda rolled out at Sebelein November 1995,our future as a party lies in the past. Thus ahead of the forthcoming polls, an unintended consequence of the 24thOctober 2014 setback has been to present BDP with a second opportunity to enact a raft offar reaching reforms; and it will be game on for 2019.
*BotsaloNtuane is chairman of BDP Gaborone Region. The views expressed are personal.