Pending before Justice Isaac Lesetedi at the Court of Appeal is a matter in which the Botswana government and the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) want to overturn a High Court ruling that extends the right to vote in the former’s primary elections. On the opposing side is the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) and missing in action is a very important party that should have substantive interest in this matter ÔÇô the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
An IEC billboard along the Trans-Kalahari Highway urges members of the public to secure their future by exercising their right to vote with Setswana that says: “Thomamisa Bokamoso. Tsaya karolo mo ditlhophong.” The question is, if the voters that the IEC targets have to vote in the second stage of an electoral process (the general election), shouldn’t it be concerned about what happens in the first stage ÔÇô the primary elections, whose outcome influences the former? Professor Agreement Jotia at the University of Botswana, a democracy expert at the University of Botswana, thinks it should. While he draws parallels between an election management body and election observers as parties that come in “when the cake has been iced”, Jotia nonetheless emphasises both the primacy of the former and its elevated responsibility in the electoral process.
“Be it in the embryonic or final stages, it is important for the IEC to be involved in both stages in order to ensure that the process is free and fair as it supposed to be,” he says.
In the particular case of the matter at the Court of Appeal, BOFEPUSU is contending that BDP primary elections wouldn’t be free and fair if civil servants (who will vote in the general election), are not allowed to participate in the BDP primary elections. Jotia believes that the fact that the matter has gone to court alone is deeply troubling.
“Democracy is about holding free and fair elections and the fact that this matter has gone to court raises a lot of questions about the sort of democracy that we have,” he says.
According to the IEC spokesperson, Osupile Maroba, the Commission is not involved in any aspect of the primary elections processes of political parties. It has also never been approached by those parties seeking assistance with the conduct of such elections. Conversely, Professor Monageng Mogalakwe (also of UB) believes that IEC can only ensure a free and fair elections if it is substantively involved in every step of the electoral process; that if it is to ensure that the second stage of the process is unproblematic it should do the same with the very first. To that end, he suggests that the IEC should actually be in charge of the primary elections of parties. While he concedes that he doesn’t know of any place in the world where that happens, he hastens to point out that there would be nothing wrong with the Commission being the first to do so. It is also worth pointing out that Botswana appears to be the only country in the world where some voters are denied the right to vote in primary elections but allowed to do so in the general election.
A further consideration is whether the IEC should have joined BOFEPUSU in the court action against the government and the BDP because the latter parties seek to take away a right that the IEC is a constitutional custodian of.
In one respect, voter apathy at a general election has to do with people not being happy with candidate choices made in primary elections. The IEC is sufficiently concerned about voter apathy to not only discourage it in its public education programmes but to also have commissioned a study on it.