Botswana’s electoral disconnect ― and how it keeps the ruling party in power
On Saturday 31 March, Botswana’s Ian Khama stepped down as the country’s president and a day later Mokgweetsi Masisi was sworn in. In a region which has seen two of the continent’s longest running presidencies – Robert Mugabe (37 years) and José Eduardo dos Santos (38 years) – Khama’s decision to respect the country’s term limits and bow out after 10 years was widely applauded. Botswana’s ruling party faces an election in just 18 months, so why would the president step down before the election?
Incumbents win elections in Africa. When a sitting president faces an opposition challenger, the opposition wins just 12% of the time. But when an opposition challenger competes in an open seat election (after the president has stepped down), the opposition’s success rate increases nearly fourfold to 45%.
Incumbents win more often due to the ‘incumbency effect’ – presidents can bend state institutions in their favour, frequently securing positive coverage in the public media, they use patronage and positions to buy loyalty, and they are able to introduce popular (or populist) policies to consolidate the ruling party’s vote base. In many cases, the president is also able to use state resources to campaign in the elections, severely skewing the playing field in their favour.
Khama stepping down 18 months ahead of the polls allows Masisi to increase his chances of being elected in 2019, by accruing the benefits of incumbency and thus perpetuating the survival of the BDP.
Protecting the party in Botswana
Botswana’s presidential terms are disconnected from the five-year electoral cycle – a trend that began after Ketumile Masire introduced presidential term limits and stepped down for his successor after 18 years as head of state in 1998. Rather than a marker of democratic governance, the uncoupling of the electoral timeline and presidential term limit is a mechanism for ensuring the continued electoral success of the ruling Botswana Democratic party – in power since 1966.
History recalls Masire in a positive light, but his decoupling of the presidential and parliamentary terms was intended for the very purpose that it now serves. In 1997 when he changed the constitution, it was in response to the growing unpopularity of his ‘old guard’ due to serious corruption scandals; and it was done to stave off the threat of an electoral loss in 1999.
Prior to Khama’s 2018 resignation, politics in Botswana appeared eerily reminiscent of the last days of Masire’s rule in the 1990s. Khama’s administration had been accused of growing authoritarian tendencies, corruption and populism at home – though his foreign policy stances were widely celebrated abroad.
After 52 years in power, many Botswanans have begun to tire of the BDP. The party narrowly avoided defeat in the last elections, when they faced a more united opposition. In the 2014 elections Khama’s BDP failed to win an outright majority, garnering just 46.5% of the vote, while opposition parties shared 53.5%. The next 18 months will give Masisi time to consolidate his position within the BDP and take the lead on popular policies to address the corruption, inequality and unemployment that are seen to have increased markedly under Khama.
The South African comparison
While South Africa’s presidential term depends entirely on parliamentary electoral cycles, the predominance of the ANC – in power since 1994 – allows the party to similarly short-circuit the party’s electoral accountability. The ANC’s constitution provides for just two presidential terms as party leader – a convention that has been respected until now, notwithstanding Thabo Mbeki’s attempt to change it and Jacob Zuma’s intention to install a proxy.
However, the party’s leadership renewal calendar installs a new party leader a little less than 18 months before the country goes to the ballot box. With the removal of Thabo Mbeki and now Jacob Zuma, the party has begun a similar (if less formalised) trend to Botswana, by delinking the presidential term from the electoral cycle.
Jacob Zuma – and to a lesser extent, Mbeki – was removed to allow the ANC to revive their waning electoral legitimacy and clean up the party’s image in the wake of damaging scandals. After the party’s bruising loss of major municipalities in the 2016 local government elections and the decline of the ANC’s national tally to just 54%, most pundits predicted that the Zuma-effect would pull the ANC under the 50% threshold in 2019.
The coalitions formed by the opposition to govern in Nelson Mandela Bay, Pretoria and Johannesburg have been seen to presage the need for a national coalition after 2019. The opposition Democratic Alliance was certainly hopeful.
Instead, the removal of Zuma and installation of Cyril Ramaphosa as president led to a wave of positive sentiment – dubbed ‘Ramaphoria’ – which has bolstered the currency, helped stave off a downgrade to ‘junk status’ by Moody’s and left the middle class sleeping a little easier. The ANC hopes to capitalise on their renewed breathing space, and was reportedly considered bringing the 2019 elections forward to outflank the opposition.
Introducing a new president – who is presented as a ‘new broom’ – ahead of an election can help revive the waning fortunes of a dominant party. This (to some degree) has helped reinvigorate the image of Tanzania’s ruling CCM which has been in power since 1962. Both the ANC and the BDP will be hoping that their pre-emptive moves to renew public confidence will pay off at the ballot box next year. By never running an open-seat election, these parties are likely to maintain their longevity for as long as the public is willing to give the new leader the benefit of the doubt.