The Boswelatlou ward by-election in the Lobatse constituency was concluded over the weekend and the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) emerged victorious by having its candidate beat the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) candidate by 183 votes to 165. Logic suggests that there are celebrations on the UDC camp while the BDP side is probably disappointed and asking itself questions of how they lost the battle. In the midst of the celebrations and disappointments is a worrying aspect to not only the Boswelatlou by-election but to all the by-elections that we have had in the past years as a country. This is the ever declining numbers of voters on all the by-elections at both constituency and council levels. As a nation we have come to accept that voter turn up at by-elections will always be much less than that at national level for both parliamentary and council seats. This acceptance seems to be a result of the practical reality that we have always witnessed at every by-election we have held.
I am not going to argue on the reasons behind this seemingly historical reality of our by-elections but simply to say that the Independent Electoral Commission and the nation at large should may be start a dialogue on this aspect with a view to firstly, digging on the reasons behind the factual and hopefully then engaging on ways and strategies to turn this trend around – assuming off course that it is something we can actually turn around in the long term to have voter turn over as close to original numbers as possible.
Why should this trend be a worry to us as nation?
In the Boswelatlou ward, just slightly over 50 percent of eligible voters voted and whilst in other by-elections the percentage might have been higher especially the Goodhope/Mabutsane by-election which had almost 80 percentage, overall most by-elections do attract very few voters. It worries more if the trend suggests that the dwindling numbers of voter turn over could easily reach levels below 50 percent. This would mean that in certain situations we will have our elected political representatives actually elected by a minority and this should be reason for worry.
Anytime we have political leaders whose popularity at the elections is less of even the simple majority, it calls for the questioning of the legitimacy of such leadership even when the electoral laws pronounces legality of such. Our cherished democratic practices and principles should require that such leaders must have a sufficient backing from electorates to justify their legitimacy and public sanctioning of their role as custodians of the country’s laws and policies. It is for this reason that we should begin to explore ways of how to address this particular problem such that our political representatives can be elected by as high numbers of voters as we can possibly muster in any bye election.
In a related matter to dwindling voter turnout in by-elections, reports this week points to a general decline in Botswana’s practices and adherence to principles of good governance. Among the principles that are said to have shown a consistent decline since 2011 is the public participation and engagement on national issues and this includes elections. If the decline in numbers of those who turn out to vote at bye elections or even general elections is directly linked to this decline of public participation on general public matters such as elections, policy making and engaging government for purposes of accountability, then our approach to devising strategies of how to increase voter turn out must be inclusive of the correlation between the general decline to public participation and the specifics of the decline in voters at bye elections. This calls for a thorough post-election analysis and identification of all factors that both the IEC and the nation needs to engage on and find both short term and long term solutions to reverse this worrying trend. I mention only the IEC and nation but obviously political parties do have an interest in understanding this ill effect and possibly also addressing it because I assume that none of the political parties would feel comfortable been elected into public office by a simple majority who practically are a minority in the larger scenario.
It is of paramount importance that as a nation we begin to address this matter because this decline puts to question the legitimacy of elected officials even when the electoral laws may pronounce legality of such outcomes but democracy is at the very least sanctioned on the basis of simple majority of the whole not necessarily of the participating at any given specific period. It is probably ideal and maybe acceptable to those who do benefit from this decreased sanctioning of their public office entrance but this can only be a short term democratic incident but certainly it ought not to be allowed to become a long term democratic virtue to define the essence and vibrancy of our country’s democratic and good governance practices. Our inclinations and resolve to a vibrant democratic and good governance practices must be based on unchallenged and majority sanctioned elected representatives whose occupation of public office is at the very least based on simple majority not majority in the minority.
It is therefore good that we celebrate elections and bye elections victories and in the midst of those celebrations and disappointments, we have to reflect on the long term implications of declining numbers of voters such as the ones we have been witnessing especially in bye elections. I am sure this nation can engage itself on finding strategies to find solutions to this worrying trend.
*Dan Molaodi teaches Public Administration at the University of Botswana