Opposition parties will be walking a tight rope, come general elections, and they risk running on fumes, unless they find an infusion of a reoriented focus.
The lack of resources on their part to enhance capacity for internal democracy, apparently assures victory for the incumbent Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).
Recent developments, such as the formation of the rebellious Temporary Platform and the Magama versus Botswana National Front court case, are poignant indicators of an increasingly volatile opposition. The public altercation reported in the media, between BNF Secretary General and the Party’s Member of Parliament Robert Molefhabangwe on the real or supposed status of Lobatse MP Nehemiah Modubule further attests to a party that still has to find its footing.
Despite varied opinions given on the source of the current state of affairs in the political terrain, one thing seems generally agreeable – that the BDP is increasingly showing better organisation than the BNF and other parties.
According to the chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Justice Monametsi Gaongalelwe, the distinctive social organisations who are stakeholders in the pursuit of democracy, need to take cognizance of the reality that they serve as laboratories in which members learn democracy by practising it.
Political parties occupy a special place in this regard as they form the reason for the existence of the IEC.
On the other hand, Dr David Sebudubudu argued that, notwithstanding the validity of Gaongalelwe’s statement, there are a number of factors that militate against the full realization of democracy by members within organisations.
The most critical one in the opinion of the UB political scientist is intolerance, which he said seems to cut across the broad spectrum of the political divide. He pointed out that intolerance is one of the hallmarks of weak leadership, adding that such weak leadership is usually not prepared to be challenged.
Case examples abound. The manner in which the BDP handled the Ntuane issue during the alcohol debates, and the Moatlhodi recall is one of the instances for reference that have been viewed by many as motivated by the zeal to ensure everyone tows a prescribed line or face removal from consequence.
The same goes for BNF expulsions and special congresses as well as the recalcitrant attitudes that keep opposition parties apart and further away from any possible unity against the BDP. It’s all borne of intolerance on both sides.
While the two biggest parties (BDP and BNF) seem to be extreme in their behaviour, the smaller opposition is not exempt from the syndrome.
For instance the BCP appears to want to conceal similar traits as a concern for its image and unity at all costs. This was exposed in the way the party handled dissent in its ranks in Selibe Phikwe and the weak consultation on the replacement of its Francistown West candidate, White Marobela, by a BAM Pact candidate, Matlhomola Modise.
In both cases, the party fared no better on the scale of tolerance and democratic leadership.
Whilst the balance between intolerance and discipline sometimes seems to elude the leadership of various parties, it does appear that for the opposition, the consequence of both has resulted in more harmful differences, tension and even outright splits.
Such loyalties manifest more evidently when there are differences of opinion and in the course of preparations and after the primary elections, said Sebudubudu.
To make matters worse a sketchy survey conducted across sections of the parties point to relatively low levels of political consciousness, and hazy notions among members concerning the direction and objectives of their organizations. Thus, for policy formulation and guidance parties rely on the dexterity of a few “experts” than a shared vision.
Another senior citizen who declined to be quoted, highlighted the concern that the absence of a State monitored Party funding in the country for deepening democracy, also exposes the Opposition and their poor followers to the whims of private and or personal ‘financiers’ and their operatives who may be in pursuit of agendas that are alien to the cause of the ordinary people. Consequently votes in internal elections and decisions are made on the basis of “consideration” for the life of the party, than merit.
“Otherwise, how do you bite the hand that keeps you up,” He added. Analysts maintain that this trend is inevitable.
In the case of the BDP, recourse is sought from the taxpayers’ resources in many forms.
The explanation for this is that the BDP has the advantage of incumbency.
“Most parties in Africa, as in the case of Botswana, have always successfully used the spoils in office to calm down the storms in their parties by way of appointing those aggrieved by the internal processes as ambassadors and other lucrative deployments thereby overcoming dissent,” posited Sebudubudu.
This has effectively brought relative calm and a semblance of cohesion to the BDP.
Furthermore, the special treatment such as car schemes, sitting in State funded committees as well as international travels, given to political representatives like councillors and MPs, regardless of their political homes, is cited as one of the factors that have destabilized opposition parties.
The ever imminent prospect of access for those who may ascend to office in any election, to be able to influence decisions on business tenders, ranging from the supply of Tsa Bana or rations for orphans and destitute in the rural areas, to construction and provision of security and cleaning services for Government departments, tends to overshadow all other reasons in the hurly burly of politics.
Apparently, the notion that, “its safer to be seen in red than green, has permeated even the public service, because then you can trust the future” has found credence in the frequency with which Opposition dissidents have always deserted their political homes for the ruling party.
Evidence deduced from experience has shown how private investors, local and international, have patronized influential BDP and senior government officials, including ministers, to guarantee a ‘stable’ environment for their operations.
In addition, in view of the advent of globalization, donors and other international financiers are generally inclined to sponsor parties that show better organizational outlook, and they must show readiness ideologically to implement the neo-liberal agenda.
Looking at the management styles of the local parties as at now this has proved the most difficult test, in part because of the disoriented ness of leaders.
Sebudubudu argues that, whilst the issue of funding May be of consequence, the credibility of leaders says volumes about the propensity of “the future government for corruption”. He posited that for this reason any effort at strengthening democracy must be preceded by the creation of an environment conducive to fair play, so that inner-party democracy also becomes feasible. In that sense people would have a say and control in calibre of leadership they want.
Against this background, another striking dimension emerges.
In Botswana, the government is the only ‘source of bread’, unlike in some other countries where there is a well-developed and established private sector.
On account of this, everyone seems to be more concerned with finding a foothold in the realm of political influence to sustain them.
Consequently, networks of people who are primed on self interest manage to hold organizations to ransom, and in the process democracy becomes the major casualty.
For this reason, if the BDP continues to have monopoly of resources and the opposition, which equally accounts for a substantial populace, remains disadvantaged there is the latent danger that since the electorate will only be exposed to a free but unfair choice of leadership, voter apathy could take yet a serious twist.
One stubborn example of what lies in store, unless serious measures are visited on the democratic process was revealed by the renouned UB Democracy Project Survey.
According to a report of Botswana Council of Non Governmental Organizations (BOCONGO) on their position regarding the state of the National Budget last year, citing the Survey results, it was found that “the democratic process itself barely represents the population.”
Only 3% of the population is identified as discussing national politics regularly…and 73% of the eligible voters are not members of associations which would enable political participation.
Alarm has also been raised at the weak or low parliamentary opposition as another contributing factor to voter apathy, since there is a feeling that it doesn’t matter “who you vote for”; ‘the difference is the same’.
Justice Gaongalelwe has said that, the role of the IEC in strengthening the democratic process can only go as far as submitting to the political leadership the appropriate recommendations basing on the “Commission’s experience and feedback from other stakeholders”.
He however suggested that the peaceful nature of Botswana and the manner in which we got our independence might partly account for their indifference to elections. Gaongalelwe added that people must view elections not as a one-off event but an important life process that they cannot detach their lifestyles from.
In the same vein he emphasized the importance of voter education in expediting the evolutionary process.
Between the academic and the learned Judge one may wonder, whether since 1965, Botswana’s democracy has been characterised by regularly free but not fair elections. Perhaps the voters have the answer, by not turning up.