Wednesday, October 20, 2021

For now, intra-party fighting good for UDC

In a light moment when he felt the need to do some physical comedy, Tshekedi Khama showed up at a Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) rally holding aloft a canopy-less umbrella over his head. The joke was actually on him because as he and everybody else would find out months later, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) that he was mocking was a solid political project that notched up 17 parliamentary seats. Originally, a loose confederation of three and now four political parties, UDC is made up of the Botswana National Front, the Botswana Movement for Democracy, the Botswana Congress Party and the Botswana People’s Party. The UDC project is only strong as its constituent members: if the members are weak, the project is doomed. Put another way, the party cannot sustain its cohesion if there is no cohesion within the components that make it up. What stands as a major threat to UDC now is not inter-party unity but intra-party unity. After a long-running battle for control of the party, BMD has split into two camps, one led by Ndaba Gaolathe and the other by Sidney Pilane. There has been a rumour of the former leading a new breakaway party which will definitely bring mixed fortunes. A breakaway formation of the BDP, BMD is very important to the UDC enterprise primarily because it has a brain trust made up of people who understand the government system and governance very well. At the top of that list is Gaolathe who has international consultancy experience, has proved to be an effective legislator and has street credibility in the non-frivolous sense of the term. While Pilane has yet to prove his value to both BMD and UDC, at this point it is not clear who between the two men will emerge triumphant. Putatively the largest opposition party, the BNF has its own problems which have yet to come out in the open because of an unethical relationship that the party has with the press. This relationship has been forced by the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend dynamic: President Ian Khama hates both the media and the opposition and the two groups have come together on account of this. A problem arises though when the media fails (as it has) to exercise its oversight role because of such companionship. The political grapevine is rife with talk of in-fighting between party leaders ÔÇô precisely the central committee ÔÇô and of egregious unethical conduct on the part of some leaders. When you think of it, BMD is in a far better place than BNF because it is dealing with its problems in a bold and more open manner. Allegations of which BMD leaders did what where are out in the public domain and the supposed culprits are giving a formal response. Conversely, in the case of the BNF, such allegations are unhelpfully confined to panicked whispering in the grapevine. The one major risk with that is what is patently false might be construed as true. Internally, BCP and BPP don’t appear to have any major problems that threaten their survival as individual parties. However, if any problems exist, now would be a good time to time to winnow out issues that make it impossible for the parties to cohere into a whole. This is the context in which the BNF has to start dealing with its own problems ÔÇô publicly because its internal processes are notoriously not sufficiently robust. In the time that is available before the critical primary elections phase, it would be desirable for the party to start sorting out its problems. Part of the grace period will have to be dedicated to sorting out inter-party problems through UDC structures. At this point, inter-party relations within UDC are at a level where Tshekedi Khama’s physical comedy routine would be a near-apt depiction of the party. There is still some wrangling over constituencies and the BPP’s response has been to give UDC an ultimatum to resolve BMD problems. It would be easy to dismiss the BPP as a nationally insignificant political player but the party’s importance to the UDC project is both symbolic and practical. Symbolically, all opposition parties (even provincial ones like BPP) should show unity by staying inside the UDC tent. Practically, there are voters who can only vote for BPP and would be inspired to go to the polls if the party is part of what looks like a viable electoral project. In electoral democracy where one vote can make all the difference, those votes mean a lot. UDC will have to deal with these and other problems but its ability to do so is dependent on intra-party stability. The danger is that if the intra- and inter-party fighting go into the critical phases of the electoral season (like the primary elections) the result will certainly be disastrous not just for UDC but for the country as well. The success of the UDC project is a big win for both the contracting parties as a unit and the country. Botswana has, to all intents and purposes, been a one-party state for a long time and UDC shows promise of becoming a counterbalancing force. Whatever its own deficiencies, a two-party system makes for a healthier democracy. Even if UDC doesn’t win next election, one made up of all opposition parties will do a better job of keeping the BDP in check. If UDC collapses and has to be restarted, all the gains that have been made will be reversed. At this point in time, UDC is weak precisely because some of its constituent parts are. The alternative scenario is a UDC so constituted winning the 2019 general election. Disaster will be guaranteed. UDC has to be strong enough to take advantage of what might be a good opportunity coming its way next year. In an attempt to keep infighting out of the critical electoral phases, the BDP plans to hold its primary elections very early. Unfortunately though, the change of guard on April 1 next year will complicate this plan. Emotions are still raw after Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi won the party’s chairmanship in Tonota. Some believe that he manipulated party structures in order that he could constitute the Tonota congress with an electoral college that didn’t represent his actual support on the ground. Before those emotions heal, Masisi is expected to appoint Tshekedi Khama as his vice president on April 1 next year when he himself becomes president. This development will be detrimental to the party’s electoral fortunes for a number of reasons. A political dynasty doesn’t belong in a democracy and few are looking forward to a third Khama becoming president. Tshekedi has not distinguished himself as a minister and is unlikely to do any better as president. Given the primacy of familial interests, his administration may be a repeat of his elder brother’s. Senior BDP figures who have been standing in line for the vice presidency and hoping for subsequent automatic succession to the presidency are certainly going to express their displeasure in ways that won’t help the party electorally. Add residual anger from customarily problematic primary elections and you can be assured of a wildfire that will test Masisi’s firefighting abilities to the limit.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper