In an ironic twist of events, the losing Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) candidate in last month’s bye-election, Jonathan Sethono, has become an asset that the party can’t put to full productive use.
Sethono is a member of the Botswana Movement for Democracy (which is one quarter of UDC) but his candidacy didn’t get the blessing of the three other partners (Botswana National Front, Botswana Congress Party and Botswana People’s Party) because there was a very strong feeling that BMD doesn’t have adequate electoral support in the constituency. The numerically stronger faction of the BNF Central Committee, which is headed by the Vice President, Reverend Dr. Prince Dibeela, unsuccessfully lobbied to field a BNF candidate. Ultimately, Sethono went into the race almost a politically orphaned candidate and, at one point, President Mokgweetsi Masisi remarked at a Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) rally that he felt for the latter. The bye-election was a result of Masisi having vacated the MP seat upon his ascendance to the presidency on April 1 this year. His party fielded Karabo Gare, a long-time lieutenant of his.
Masisi made such remarks before the televised debate between Sethono and Gare. BDP sources now reveal that after the debate, the president would have felt not for Sethono but Gare.
“Sethono completely outclassed Gare during the debate and people who may have dismissed him began to take notice,” says a BDP source, a seasoned political operator who was at the nub of Gare’s campaign.
The source adds that while the party expected Masisi’s win in 2014 and the controversy in the UDC over Sethono’s candidacy to work in the BDP’s favour, their candidate’s performance during the debate made them very uneasy even before it ended.
“Gare himself knew he had performed poorly with the whole nation watching and some of the viewers were people who were going to vote in the upcoming bye-election. The party leadership was very worried and we had to step up our campaign effort because, following the debate, nothing seemed guaranteed,” the source says.
Gare ended up winning by a comfortable margin and was sworn in a day later in parliament as Moshupa-Manyana’s new MP. By the source’s estimation, Sethono stellar’s performance during the debate could well have netted him well over 1000 voters who would otherwise have either voted for Gare or just stayed home. With more than 50 percent of voters from the 2014 general election not showing up at the polls, it may not be far-fetched to hazard the guess that the controversy over Sethono’s candidacy was a big reason for this voter apathy.
While he lost, Sethono has proved himself an electoral asset but issues that caused UDC to not rally behind him persist. BNF still believes that its candidate would not only have garnered many more votes but would have trounced Gare. Ironically, while Sethono has, as an individual, gained a lot of political star power, his association with BMD limits the extent to which he can use that power as political capital.