The first time Amy Poteete hit the Botswana headlines, most journalits asked, Amy who? Her paper on Botswana’s democracy presented to an audience of international students at the University of Ottawa earlier this year was perfect newspaper fodder and spawned headlines such as “Canadian academic pours water on Botswana’s democratic credentials” and “Canadian professor decries Botswana’s false democracy.” Since then, the Associate Professor of Concordia University in Canada has captured more than her fair share of column pixels.
I am sitting with the author of the paper: “Unfinished Stories: Political Development and the 2009 Elections in Botswana”, for an interview as the sun seems to be setting on the BDP while the breakaway Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) seems to be on the march. Listening to Dr Poteete unpacking Botswana’s political future, it seems almost inevitable that she will become a recognizable part of what we might call a pantheon of Botswana’s international opinion leaders alongside the likes of Professor Thomas Good, Professor Lawrence Schlemmer and the late prophet Dr Ng’ombe.
“My analysis of the 2009 elections suggests that the factional conflict actually contributed to the BDP’s electoral success. It seems that at least some voters who might have otherwise voted for the opposition or abstained chose to support candidates associated with the Barata-Phathi faction instead. Also, factional competition for seat share apparently helped mobilize the BDP base. Regardless of the number of elected officials who decide to switch from the BDP to the BMD, the BDP is currently not very attractive to the sorts of voters who supported Barata-Phathi candidates in 2009. Although nothing is certain in politics, the BDP’s vote share is almost certain to drop below the 50 percent threshold following this split unless the party takes some dramatic steps to appeal to reform-minded voters”, Dr Poteete is contemplating the BDP chances in the next general elections.
“Although an eventual change in government seems likely, there is no guarantee that the change will occur in the next round of elections. Under the current electoral system, it is possible for the BDP to win a legislative majority even if its vote share falls below the 50% threshold.”
The conventional wisdom is that President Lt Gen Ian Khama will face an uphill battle in keeping his seat, following the recent rapture in the BDP, and might even loose the next general elections.
Dr Poteete, however, gives a more in depth perspective: “I think it is fair to say that there is not a consensus on what causes a dominant political party to lose power. In any case, there definitely is no single necessary condition for a loss of dominance. The political world is more complicated than that. I adhere to the theoretical notion of multiple-causation, which means that there are multiple causes for a given outcome. For the topic at hand, multiple-causation implies that there is more than one way for a party to gain dominance, more than one way for a party to maintain a position of dominance, and more than one way for a party to lose its position of dominance.
Socio-economic developments – including the development of civil society and the availability of government-controlled resources – play a role, but so do the character of institutional arrangements, the extent of institutionalization in various realms of social and political life, leadership, etc. The most important factor is likely to differ from country to country and time period to time period”
┬áShe says Botswana is caught between democratization and de-democratization forces: “While sharp dichotomies are great for political rallies, they obscure the mixed nature of reality. Currently in Botswana, for example, I see what might be described as both democratizing and de-democratizing processes. “No country – regardless of the duration of its experience with democracy – is immune to pressures for de-democratization.” The recurring question is whether the forces for democratic deepening are stronger than the processes that erode democracy.
Quizzed on what motivated her to choose her project and why Botswana? She says: “The short answer is that I want to get a more comparative perspective to help me and those who read my work understand Botswana’s experiences with extended rule by a single party and┬áincreases in electoral competition” Dr Poteete is explaining the motivation behind her research project and why she chose Botswana. And the Long answer? “I have been conducting research on the politics of natural resource policies in Botswana since the mid-1990s. Although electoral politics did not feature in my initial research agenda at all, my analysis suggested that electoral competition influenced the policies I was studying in various ways. My interest in the interaction between electoral politics and policy was sharpened by the observation of the changes in socio-economic conditions from one research trip to another.
In an article published last year (“Is Development Path Dependent or Political? A Reinterpretation of Mineral-Dependent Development in Botswana,” Journal of Development Studies 45, no. 4 (April): 544 – 571), I argued that changes in the breadth, stability, and character of the Botswana Democratic Party’s electoral coalition have influenced changes in macro-development policies over time. That article underlines the erosion of the BDP’s electoral base since the 1980s and suggests that increased socioeconomic heterogeneity makes continued increases in electoral competition very likely. ?So … my past research raised several questions that stimulated interest in comparative experiences with dominant party systems. First, cross-national experiences with the end of single party dominance have been diverse. Are there lessons to be drawn from the experiences elsewhere? Second, my previous work suggests that different patterns of local and national electoral competition have different implications for policy – in terms of the provision of public goods versus benefits for special interests, sensitivity to local conditions and concerns (very important for natural resource policies), and responsiveness to the electorate in general. What are those patterns?
How do the local and national political dynamics interact? And what are the qualitative implications for democratic governance?”
Dr Poteete’s career has taken her around the world and she took the Sunday Standard into her projects: “There are two components of this new line of work. ?First, some colleagues and I constructed a database of party systems in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in 1973 and 2006. The first date, 1973, marks the beginning of the “third wave of democracy” with the regime change in Portugal. The last date was simply when we decided to launch the project.
This database includes all countries on the African continent that had a functioning electoral system in 1973 and 2006 (as well as Asian and Latin American countries). Note that this database compiles data on party systems, election results, and institutional arrangements from other data sources; it is not based on any field research. This component of the research represents an initial effort to address the questions about cross-national experiences with dominant party systems and changes in the competitiveness of elections over time.?Second, I have just received a three year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada to support field-based research on the interactions between the competitiveness of elections (local and national) and policy in Botswana, Tanzania, and Senegal. These countries were selected based on the duration of electoral politics (to allow comparisons over time) and variation in the degree of electoral competition. No country on the African continent has had regular multiparty elections for as long as Botswana. Senegal is the second-runner up in this regard – and has experienced a turn-over in government through elections. Tanzania reintroduced multiparty elections in 1994, after many years of multi-candidate single party elections. Although the ruling party thoroughly dominates national politics in Tanzania, there are pockets of locally competitive elections. This research will compare the implications for policy processes of (1) changes in the competitiveness of elections at the national level over time and (2) different patterns of locally versus nationally competitive elections.
The grant to support this research was only awarded a couple of months ago and so we are talking about research that WILL be done.?┬áShe says in a recent first cut at analyzing the cross-national database, she and Jeremy Speight compared descriptive features of the party systems and electoral results in 1973 and 2006 with the goal of evaluating any changes in the prevalence of dominant party systems between these two dates. In some respects, there has been relatively little change. On average, the ruling parties in 1973 and 2006 were equally entrenched in the sense that there is no statistically significant difference in the number of months that the ruling party had been in office between the two dates. Likewise, it is still commonplace for ruling parties to win well over 60% of the contested seats. If party dominance is understood in terms of duration in office or legislative dominance, then there has been little change in the prevalence of dominant party systems.
These data, however, obscure evidence of increasingly competitive elections. Our data reveal increases in the effective numbers of political parties and in the vote and seat shares of the second-place parties. Such increases in electoral competition imply that, despite continued legislative dominance, the ruling party may feel that its hold on power is precarious in a larger number of African, Asian, and Latin American countries than was the case in the 1970s. The perceived precariousness of dominance can be expected to influence policies – and the quality of governance more generally. These patterns parallel Botswana’s current experience of continued legislative dominance by the BDP despite increasing electoral competition. As noted above, the second part of the research has only just gotten underway; it is too early to report any findings/patterns.