On Saturday, April 23th, scores of Batswana in the Philip Matante East ward in the Francistown South constituency went to the polls to elect their new council member. This by-election, as indicated elsewhere, was prompted by the death of Councillor Shadreck Nyeku. In the latest competition two contenders being Uyapo Nyeku and Peter Nare for the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) and Botswana Democratic Party, respectfully. In the 2014 general elections the UDC won the ward. They were once more expected to win it. Indeed, when results were announced UDC had retained the ward with Nyeku polling 530 to Nare’s 391 votes. There were 4 spoilt votes. In effect there was nothing surprising about the results.
However, what raised eyebrows were campaign tactics used by contesting parties. Before I dwell with what transpired in the by-election I thought it is important to recognise that although the contest was between the BDP and the UDC, there was another key player involved in this campaign. Botswana Congress Party (BCP) joined hands with UDC to fight against the ruling party. Obviously this was made possible by recent MOU signed by the two parties to support each other in any by-election. The stakes were high in Francistown with worrisome developments pointing towards democratic development or lack thereof in the country. One can say that the renowned democratic culture of peace, tolerance and maturity that has come to define our system is certainly under threat.
I am not saying there were no positives from this by-election. The level of campaign, for example, signalled how hotly electoral contest has become in the country. Both parties worked really hard, bringing in foot soldiers from across the country to come and do the dirty job of campaigning for their candidates. True, they came in big numbers. That our political contests are no longer a one sided affair should be something to celebrate. Obviously some lost tempers in the campaign process, resulting in bloodied fights. Others claimed they uncovered plots to sell them beyond our borders. Just politicking, I guess? What is important, once again, is that everybody came back intact, except few teeth lost here and there. A peaceful environment thus marked the context within which the latest elections occurred. As indicated in previous installments, the harmonious context within which the current elections manifested truly remains a unique feature of our democracy. That we should guard by all means possible!
The negatives were there for all to see, and they were plenty. First, almost a third of those eligible to vote did not exercise their democratic right to choose their council representative. This by-election was therefore marked by low turnout. But voter apathy is an issue for by-elections. It was surprising that voter turnout could be low in an urban area, where one would expect voter education to be comparatively higher than in the rural areas. It means sadly that more work on voter education still needs to be done by relevant stakeholders, especially IEC and the political parties.
Second, the weekend elections brought to surface another worrisome development with serious implications for our democratic practice; commercialisation of democracy. For my friends in the bundus, money is becoming the defining aspect of who wins in our democracy: Votes for sale. In here voters are enticed with cash or related to vote for a particular party. Reports in our polity suggest that the ruling party have lately resorted to such tactics; this concern was raised in Goodhope/Mabule constituency and Sekoma by-elections. As a people we cannot allow our democracy to resemble what we see elsewhere in the continent and beyond. Sadly, this is a matter that as a society we do not want to confront, but delaying action only serves to destroy the integrity that have marked our past elections. Votes for sale, we should be clear, is an insult to voters! It is a relic from the past that should not be allowed to institutionalise within our borders. More than anything else the body in charge of elections should find means and ways of verifying such claims and, importantly, find ways of addressing it before it’s too late.
Third, a new development in the campaign front, once again, took centre stage. The ruling party resorted to scare tactics. Yes in the past the BDP engaged in somewhat a shock and awe type of campaign in which they seek rapid dominance over their competitors. State media would be used to publicise ruling party activities at the expense of the opposition, among many others. A new low has lately come into the menu of shock and awe campaigns adopted by the ruling party. People are being told not to vote opposition if they want to be rewarded. In case they don’t listen stick approach becomes the preferred tool of maintaining order. When senior ministers started threatening poor souls in Sekoma to desist from voting opposition if they wanted developments (clinics, schools etc) in their areas, we thought it was a once off incident. We were proved wrong. In fact the situation took a nasty turn in the latest by-election when even the President repeated similar sentiments expressed by his ministers in Francistown. I knew we were doomed ÔÇô literally and figuratively ÔÇô when even first citizen could not find fault in that approach. How can a government deny its citizens developments for just voting their preferred candidates? It can only be done under a cruel regime. And my thinking was that as a people we are not there yet ÔÇô we still have consciousness guiding us in discharging our public affairs. My hope is that I am right on this one.
This morning on Gabzfm Morning Show, Riggie had BDP Secretary General, Botsalo Ntuane, and UDC Member of Parliament for Francistown South, Wynter Mmolotsi. They were reflecting on Saturday’s results. To say I was shocked by what Ntuane professed would be an understatement. He wanted to tell us that for Batswana not to vote for the ruling party was akin to taking his party for granted. To him BDP has over the years provided services and developments to Batswana for free and, therefore, they needed to vote for it or else face a bleak future under a new dispensation. From free education, to free health, to free everything, including not paying taxes ÔÇô that is what Batswana are getting under the BDP. At first I did not believe those words were coming from Ntuane. He cannot reason at that level. But it turned out it was him. Seriously, what is it that governments are meant to do? If they cannot provide basic services who should undertake such a role? The scare tactic is indeed getting out control. But I never imagined him, of all people, wanting to blackmail Batswana to vote BDP because it succeeded in providing basic services for free.
Sadly, the Philip Matante East by-election points towards institutionalisation of a disturbing development in our democratic culture. We are slowly but surely joining pariah states if what manifested in the latest by-election is anything to go by. Our moral compass has deserted us in a big way. And as a purported mature democracy in the continent surely we can do better. Otherwise we risk a huge reversal of democratic practise in our republic.
*Dr Molefhe teaches Public administration at the University of Botswana