Ahead of the 2014 general election an everyday, otherwise non-political Setswana word (moono which means consensus) was franchised into public consciousness as the battle cry of a new phenomenon that had branded itself as the Umbrella for Democratic Change.
Three political parties in the Botswana National Front (BNF), Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) and Botswana People’s Party (BPP) had found consensus on what seemed to be the most effective strategy to end the long-running Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) rule. That didn’t happen but in 2017 we are still being told that moono is the way to go. Conversely, a University of Botswana trio (Professor David Sebudubudu, Keratilwe Bodilenyane and Phana Kwerepe) argue that like most pre-electoral coalitions in Africa, UDC is an “opportunistic” enterprise that lacks a well-defined platform and ideological orientation.
“Opposition coalitions in Africa have hardly succeeded in defeating ruling parties save for a few countries. Opposition coalitions in Botswana are no exception. The opposition has equally tried with various pre-electoral coalitions without evident success,” the authors write in an academic paper titled “The Politics of Opposition Electoral Coalitions and Alliances in Botswana.”
They endorse the view that “most coalitions in Africa are based on office-seeking, rather than policy-seeking motives and consist of parties that are distinguished predominantly by the personality of their leaders rather than a distinct political programme that is relevant to the concerns of African citizens.” The latter would be legitimate basis to ask the question: What are UDC supporters more familiar with – their leader, Duma Boko, or the party’s political programme?
The history that the authors assemble shows that at a continental level, pre-electoral opposition coalitions have generally been disastrous and excepting one condition, there is no cast-iron guarantee that UDC will unseat the BDP. Then again, UDC is nothing new, just a reincarnation of what has been attempted by Botswana opposition parties going as far back as 1991 when the BNF, BPP and the Botswana Progressive Union (RIP) coalesced into the ineffectual and short-lived Peoples Progressive Front (PPF). From the analysis of Sebudubudu, Bodilenyane and Kwerepe, the UDC carries the jinx of PPF and all the other pre-electoral opposition coalitions in between in its full strength: “… all the pre-electoral coalitions that have been formed thus far, the UDC included, were meant to wrestle power from the BDP without a clear cut discernable programme. In the end, all these forms of opposition pre-electoral alliances in Botswana have been, in the main, opportunistic in nature.”
The opportunism circumvents the necessary spade work and impedes the evolution of these movements into viable entities with a realistic chance of taking over the reins of power. In the popular imagination, ruling parties continually run rings round the opposition because not only are they deep-pocketed, they are also inclined to abuse incumbency advantages. In expanding the opportunism theme, Sebudubudu & Co tell the other side of the story.
“Interestingly, a viable opposition has generally eluded African countries because opposition parties are generally uncompetitive and uninstitutionalised, resulting in one-party dominant party system. Consequently, the opposition in a number of African countries resorted to coalition, cooperation and alliance politics as the most viable way to wrestle power from dominant parties,” they write.
Part of the institutionalization process takes the form of building an electoral base. This is something that Botswana’s opposition parties have not done a good job of and at least one UDC partner is narrowly provincial. The authors contend that money is far from being the issue here: “The failure to build an electoral base amongst opposition parties suggests that opposition pre-electoral coalitions in Africa are doomed to fail, even if they were to have sufficient funding. Where such support exists, it is regionally concentrated. A combination of these limitations makes pre-electoral coalitions, particularly in Africa, fluid and brittle.”
Earlier scholarship on coalition formation has identified three shortcomings: parties having to compromise on priorities or principle, parties losing some control over the message and tactical decisions or even their individual identities or names in the election period and, parties being associated with the negative aspects of other members of the coalition. These shortcomings can cause a real headache when the possibility of dissolving these different parties to coalesce into a unified whole is mooted.
Such challenges notwithstanding, Botswana has come to a crossroads and from the authors’ analysis, the fate of the opposition relies on the country’s principal opposition parties ÔÇô the BNF and the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) forging a working alliance. Having earlier stayed out, BCP has now come into the UDC fold but clearly there are still a lot of kinks to be straightened out. One is, who between BCP president, Dumelang Saleshando and his BMD counterpart, Ndaba Gaolathe, is UDC’s First Vice President. This is not about titles but which party leader has greater power. A part of the paper that blends current affairs with history and prediction of the future ominously states that the BNF “predisposition to split and recurring factions” bodes ill for its electoral chances as well as for prospects of forming a real working coalition with the BCP.
The paper could have gone farther to consider what sort of broth a quarrel of cooks with different menus would turn out when they finally get to cook up a storm in the State House kitchen. It doesn’t and the authors make clear the fact that they confine themselves to an area (pre-electoral opposition coalitions) that hasn’t attracted adequate scholarly attention and will not analyse post-electoral government coalitions. It turns out that “literature on pre-electoral coalitions is not only emerging but is equally focused on the developed countries” and that “literature on coalitions in Africa is still in its infancy.”
The paper makes for interesting reading at a time that next door in Zimbabwe, opposition parties have just cobbled together a pre-election coalition to unseat president Robert Mugabe who has ruled for 37 years and plans to run for re-election next year.