Tuesday, March 21, 2023

‘The President or Minister picks the election date’

According to section 34 of Botswana’s Electoral Act (Botswana Government 1999),┬áfor the purpose of a general election┬áto the National Assembly, or a by-election, it is the President who shall issue a Writ of Elections addressed to the returning officer of each constituency, fixing the place, day, and hours between which the returning officer will receive nominations of candidates and the day for taking any poll which may┬á become necessary.┬á

In the case of elections of representatives at local government, the Act stipulates that it is the Minister of Local Government who shall issue an Election Instrument fixing the place, day, and hours between which the returning officer will receive nominations of candidates and the day for taking any poll which may become necessary. Hence on 21st January, 2008, Mmegi, one of Botswana’s┬áindependent newspapers,┬ácarried a headline that read ‘IEC awaits by-election dates’.

In an interview with the newspaper, the Secretary of the IEC was quoted as saying that his office was yet to receive dates for the upcoming elections from the Minister of Local Government. In the same interview, the IEC Secretary also informed the newspaper that his office was also waiting for the President to announce the dates for two constituencies whose parliamentary seats were left open by the resignations of the constituency parliamentary representatives.

This reaction of Botswana’s IEC to an impending by-election, stands in sharp contrast to how the IEC in occupied Palestine would approach elections. For example on┬á13th November, 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer┬ácarried a headline┬áthat read ‘Palestinian vote is postponed’. The paper quoted┬áan Associated Press report that the Palestinian Election Commission (PLC) ruled that the scheduled January 24th 2010┬áelections should be postponed because of opposition from Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip part of Palestine.

The Christian Science Monitor of 15th November 2009 carried┬áan interview with a Canadian elections and political expert who states┬áthat the PLC┬á always maintained neutrality and an arms-length distance from politics and their position is that ‘if we can’t have elections everywhere, then we cannot do our job’ if Hamas is not going to participate (HYPERLINK “http://www.csmonitor.com2009/1112/p06s09-wome-html” \t “_blank”http://www.csmonitor.com2009/1112/p06s09-wome-html).

These are very contrasting reactions from two EMBs concerning elections. Whilst the Botswana’s┬áIEC has to first wait┬á to hear from the Executive before it can make a decision about pending elections, the Palestinian’s IEC┬áon its own decides to postpone the elections, in order to hear from the opposition!

The question that arises in the case of Botswana’s IEC is,┬ásince there is an IEC, whose┬ámandate is to ensure free and fair┬áelection, why does the President or the Minister (both interested parties) have the prerogative to issue a writ of election,┬áand not the IEC itself?┬á According to Tshosa (2007) this is another good example of┬áthe unfairness, rather than the unfreeness, of the elections process in Botswana.┬á

Tshosa posits that the freeness of election in Botswana has never really been a problem because every eligible voter freely participates in the electoral process, provided of course they have registered as voters.  Although the IEC is mandated to conduct and supervise the elections and to ensure that such elections are conducted efficiently, properly, freely and fairly, it can be argued that the Electoral Act clearly advantages the ruling party.

Both the President and the Minister of Local Government are not impartial, but players with vested political interests who would want to see their own party win the elections. 

Although recommendations have been made by the IEC for an amendment of the Act to fix the date of the general elections (Botswana Government 2005) this   recommendation is one of the many that   would have to be approved  by the executive first. 
As previously stated, Botswana democracy has come to be regarded as legendary or even proverbial, so much that little attention is paid to the playing ground. For example, speaking ahead of the announcement of the 2009 general election results, the US Ambassador to Botswana congratulated all political parties and candidates for ‘a successful conclusion to the 2009 campaign’┬á and pointed out that Botswana’s unbroken 43 year history of democratic governance and credible elections was a model for the continent.┬á

But the foregoing┬á┬á examination of Botswana’s elections over the years shows that the claims by the American Ambassador regarding Botswana’s democratic credentials may not be as self-evident as he would want to suggest.┬á This is especially the case when it comes to financial resources.

At every elections or by-election, the ruling party is always awash with money. But it has been revealed recently that the ruling party, which has over the years rejected calls for public funding of political parties, has been receiving secret funding from De Beers, an international diamond mining company that has been operating in Botswana since the 1970s.  In a claim that has not been repudiated, the  same source  alleges  that De Beers also masterminded the retirement of former President Masire, his succession by Festus Mogae and the retirement of the current President Khama from the Botswana Defence Force to take up the Vice Presidency and eventually the Presidency of Botswana. 

The foregoing analysis of Botswana┬áelections is a┬ádeparture from the traditional focus on the freeness of elections in Botswana that has over the years been┬ágiven considerable attention┬áby the┬ámany commentators and┬áobservers of the country’s political landscape. By contrast this analysis draws attention to┬áissues critical to┬áfairness of elections in the country.

It is argued that whilst┬á┬á Botswana’s IEC is enjoined by the Constitution┬á┬á to ensure that elections in Botswana are conducted efficiently, properly, freely and┬áfairly, the same IEC┬áis┬ánot able to level the electoral playing field┬áto ensure that elections are also fair, and not just free.

Although elections in Botswana have always been free,┬áin the sense that every eligible voter has always been free to┬áparticipate in the elections, the fairness of the elections┬áremains problematic.┬á The legal and political framework within which Botswana’s IEC operates is such that it would not have the ability or leverage to create┬áa level playing field by┬áensuring┬áthat elections are also fair.┬á┬á

The┬ámost┬ácritical┬áissues of fairness┬áraised in the analysis include the┬áfollowing (a)┬á access to public media and other resources and (b) the selection of the elections date. With regard to access to public┬ámedia, which dominates the country’s media landscape, it has been pointed out that the public media are┬álocated in the Office of the President, and are part of┬áthe Executive arm of government.

Because of this arrangement,┬áthe ruling party is given┬áextensive coverage, and the public media effectively “merchandises”┬áthe ruling party, whilst the IEC remains┬áimpotent and cannot┬á ensure┬á equitable access of all political┬á parties to these┬á state resources.
The growing consensus is that the fairness of an election will require, inter alia, equal opportunity for all political parties (not just the ruling party) to publicly owned resources, including the media, to effectively sell or merchandise their products in the form of party manifestoes. With regard to the elections dates, it has been pointed out that the election dates  for both the general elections, bye elections of members of parliament and  elections local government representatives  are not set by  the IEC, but by the Executive, who obviously have a vested  interest in the outcome of such elections.

The setting of the election date by members of the executive, be they the President or the Minister, as the case may be, gives the ruling party undue advantage as this amounts to using inside information.  It can be argued that in establishing the IEC, Botswana has not really made a clean break with the past. The transition from government supervisory electoral management model to independent electoral management model has not been fully completed. In this regard it can be argued that the elections in Botswana will probably continue to be free, as it has been the case for the last ten general elections, but the elections will not necessarily be fair. Simply put, the Botswana EMB can only ensure that elections in Botswana are conducted efficiently, properly and freely, but  cannot deliver on  the fourth component of its mandate, namely,  that elections are also conducted fairly.  In this regard it is important to observe that neither the Botswana Constitution nor the Electoral Act expressly guarantees the independence of the IEC, something that is regarded by many as an unfortunate oversight, but which, on the basis of the foregoing assessment, may very well have been by design.
*Professor Mogalakwe teaches Sociology at the University of Botswana. This is an excerpt of a paper due to appear in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies


Read this week's paper