The start of the winter session of parliament on Monday could not have come at a worse time for MPs who will be contesting in primary elections on August 30.
While these MPs are attending to parliamentary business in Gaborone, back home, their opponents are enjoying uninterrupted campaigning in the last and critical days of the primary elections process.
Tonota South MP, Pono Moatlhodi acknowledges the disadvantage of being in Gaborone at this time when he could be in Mmadunyane Ward explaining to the party faithful why they should give him a third term of office.
Moatlhodi says that the worst possible eventuality that could throw his campaign off-track is not being around to counter false allegations made about his candidature by his opponents.
“But I’m not terribly worried because I have a campaign team on the ground that is continuing my campaign,” he says.
That notwithstanding, Moatlhodi offers a hypothetical scenario that could require his physical presence in Tonota: “If it is falsely claimed that ‘Pono is not contesting’, some voters would prefer to hear the denial from me rather than from someone else.”
The context of the latter statement is this: Moatlhodi’s candidacy hardly got off with a swing as it was initially rejected by the branch committee.
However, that decision was later reversed by the central committee.
Oreeditse Molebatsi also sees the possibility of his campaign suffering as a result of his absence from his Tswapong South constituency.
“While I am in parliament, back in my constituency my opponents would be busy campaigning. I can’t discount the possibility of some MPs stealing parliamentary time to sneak out to their constituencies. It is also going to be hard for MPs to concentrate on parliamentary business because of demands on our time from people calling from constituencies. Personally,
I have been campaigning vigorously but in electoral politics, you can never do enough campaigning,” Molebatsi says.
While he wants to believe that he has been in Francistown West long enough and that, by now, people would have made up their minds about his suitability as a representative, Tshelang Masisi still feels that it is important for him to make periodic visits to his constituency to campaign for re-election.
When Sunday Standard spoke to him on Friday night, Masisi was in Francistown on a campaign mission. He is standing against Sylvia Muzila who, until her retirement in April this year, was Francistown’s district commissioner. As a retiree and full-time resident of Francistown, Muzila has plenty of time to run her campaign. A jittery Masisi had to travel 472 kilometers in the very first weekend of the current parliamentary session to touch base with his constituents.
On the other hand, two BDP MPs view the issue differently. Mahalapye East’s Botlogile Tshireletso says that her attendance at the winter session is unlikely to have any negative impact on her campaign.
“I have had enough time to do my campaigning after I was vetted in. Of course, parliament is going to take away some of my time but I would still be able to visit my constituency during weekends. My campaign is unlikely to suffer because I have campaign teams in all eight wards in my constituency. My ticket also has council candidates that are campaigning for me on the ground,” Tshireletso says.
Additionally, the Mahalapye East MP says that it is highly unlikely that her opponents can do any damage in the short period of time that she will be in Gaborone. The winter session is scheduled to end on August 22. That gives her and others a full week to rush back home to their respective constituencies and give their final why-you-should-reelect-me speeches.
“I don’t think that voters are as fickle as to switch their allegiance in so short a period of time,” she says.
Guma Moyo of Tati East, who is also Assistant Minister of Finance, shares Tshireletso’s position but for a different reason. Moyo says it is too late in the day to pull any last-minute tricks to ingratiate oneself with voters.
“What would I say or do now that I haven’t said or done in the past? What words do I use now to sweet-talk party members into voting for me ÔÇô ‘vote for me I will supply you with milk to bathe in’? I don’t see how my campaign will suffer,” Moyo says.
It seems unlikely that the BDP will alter its primary elections timetable in such manner that MPs would not feel compromised by having to attend parliament while running re-election campaigns back home at the same time. The party’s executive secretary, Dr. Comma Serema, says that he sees nothing wrong with the current arrangement and further suggests that incumbents actually have an advantage over their competition.
“Incumbency comes with both advantages and disadvantages,” Serema says.
He concedes that, at this particular point in time, incumbents may have the disadvantage of being far away from their constituencies at so critical a time. However, Serema points out that incumbents also have the advantage of numerous platforms through which they can bolster their candidacy. Serema suggests that far from being disadvantaged because they are attending parliament, incumbents’ candidacy get a huge boost when their contributions during parliamentary debates get extensive press coverage.
“They also get to address kgotla meetings and feature at many more platforms. That works in favour of their candidacy,” he adds.
On the other hand, Molebatsi suggests that having to address as many feedback meetings as he has had to after the first parliamentary meeting of the year, cut into his campaign time.
While the kgotla platform may, in a subtle manner, bolster a candidates’ profile and campaign programme, it does not permit them the luxury of engaging in the no-holds-barred, freedom-square type of politicking whose unambiguous political messages would broaden their electoral appeal. The kgotla meeting also presents the risk of incumbent candidates exposing themselves to virulent attacks from their opponents. The latter may actually get mileage from taking on MPs at such meetings.
Weekends will provide MPs with an opportunity to travel to their constituencies but as Tshireletso explains, that will come at great cost.
“It means putting petrol in your car and transversing the length and breadth of your constituency. On every day of the campaign you have to fill up your car with petrol as well as the other cars involved in the campaign. At a time like this when petrol prices go up on an almost daily basis, that is very costly,” says Tshireletso, adding that, in their nature, electoral campaigns are a prohibitively expensive undertaking.
In some instances, electoral expense may also involve having to pay for the personal expense of some supporters who are in the habit of blackmailing candidates.
A councillor in the Gaborone City Council recalls being shaken down for a loan by a shebeen queen who wanted money to buy cartons of Chibuku traditional beer. The latter made the fickle promise that she would repay the loan after the merchandise was sold out. Candidates also have to buy campaign team staff airtime for their mobile phones as well as food.