/ 16 October 2009

Botswana votes, Khama seen retaining power

Botswana held a general election on Friday which is widely expected to see Ian Khama retain power as president while facing rising discontent as a recession hurts the world’s largest diamond producer.

Khama’s ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) is seen winning the presidential and parliamentary election, despite voter frustration over the state of the economy and internal squabbles which may undermine some of its support.

Voting began shortly after 04.30GMT, with a steady stream of people entering polling stations around the country’s capital, Gaborone. Police mounted patrols but the atmosphere was calm.

”I think they [BDP] are really not good. They have to change … there are not enough jobs and development,” said 22-year-old mass media intern Judith Fifing, a first-time voter.

An Independent Electoral Commission official at one of the main polling stations said voting was proceeding without incident.

Botswana has been hit by recession as a global slowdown cuts demand for diamonds, which account for close to 40% of the economy.

The crisis has forced Botswana, seen as one of Africa’s best-run countries with a history of budget surpluses and the region’s strongest currency, to plunge itself into debt. Gross domestic product is widely forecast to shrink 10%.

BDP infighting
The BDP, which has ruled Botswana since independence in 1966, has been dogged by fierce infighting that could erode some support and help the opposition gain ground in Parliament.

Khama, son of the country’s first president, has been in heated arguments with the BDP’s chairperson and suspended its secretary general, Gomolemo Motswaledi, for allegedly undermining his authority.

The row has intensified charges of autocracy and populism against Khama, a United Kingdom-trained army lieutenant-general who has said politics was never his first choice of career.

”A lot of this factionalism is purely jockeying for positions, it’s all to do with power-play,” Khama said in an interview with Financial Mail weekly.

”I don’t think factions can ever be done away with — you just need to be able to manage them so they don’t become totally disruptive of good order.”

While the feuding could cut BDP support, main opposition Botswana National Front (BNF) does not have enough grassroots support to provide a serious challenge. It also has to contend with a splinter group, the Botswana Congress Party (BCP).

Under the BDP, annual per capita income has risen to more than $5 000 and many voters feel the economic crisis cannot be directly blamed on the party.

”I support the ruling party. I have seen its achievements, and it’s stable compared to some of the opposition parties. There is free education, support for the aged in monetary terms and the needy people are given food. They [BDP] have done a lot,” 22-year-old student Kenaleone Kelebale said.

The BDP won 77,2% of the vote in the last election in 2004. In the recently dissolved Parliament, it held 44 of the 57 seats, while the BNF had 12 and the BCP had one.

About 725 000 people are registered to vote and the winning party needs 29 of the 57 seats to choose their president.

Polls are anticipated to close at 17.00GMT and first results are expected late on Friday. The final result is likely to be released on Saturday. — Reuters