About-turn: Botswanas former president, Ian Khama, who left the ruling party founded by his father, is backing the opposition in the runup to the elections on Wednesday, October 23. (Monirul Bhuiyan/AFP)
On October 23, Botswana votes in its 11th general election since gaining independence in 1966. Regarded as a stable democracy in an otherwise chequered African political landscape, this vote is a little different, coming on the back of significant shifts among political players.
Not only has this given rise to a new set of political risks, but it also means the elections will be the most unpredictable yet, with investors torn on who the smart money would back.
Key to the disruptions is former president Ian Khama, specifically his defection from the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) — founded by his father, Seretse Khama — and his formation of the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) with other wantaways from the BDP. While publicly claiming that this was prompted by victimisation at the hands of the current president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, other reasons may have played a more significant role.
Khama had failed to retain the levers of power in the BDP after his handpicked successor, Masisi, defied a succession plan envisaged by the former president. Masisi also rolled out an anticorruption initiative targeting key Khama allies, such as former security chief Isaac Kgosi, fuelling speculation that Khama himself could come under scrutiny.
Since then the former president has devoted himself to toppling the BDP, pinning his hopes on an alliance — in the form of a gentlemen’s agreement — with the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), the country’s largest opposition bloc.
Besting the BDP
The idea that the UDC-BPF alliance could usurp the BDP is an attractive one and has gained traction amid a shifting political landscape.
The ruling party’s performance has been on the wane in recent years, having lost the popular vote to the collective opposition for the first time in its history in 2014. But they still maintained a parliamentary majority.
This time around the ruling party will miss Khama’s clout in the electorally significant Central district. Instead, this will be mobilised to accrue a 14-seat target for the BPF, which would be sufficient to deny the BDP the mandate to form a government, provided that the UDC either maintains or improves on its 17-seat haul in 2014.
Nonetheless, it would be risky to bet against the BDP. Of the three most likely scenarios — an outright win for the ruling party, a hung Parliament, or an outright win for the opposition — the BDP is still the favourite, albeit by a fine margin.
First, it is worth recalling the infrequency of electoral losses for national liberation movements such as the BDP. Barring Lesotho, Malawi and Zambia, such turnovers are uncommon in Southern Africa and there is evidence — including but not limited to its incumbency — to suggest that the BDP will not be the next casualty. Like most other national liberation movements, the BDP continues to benefit from charitable sentiments among older, more active voters, despite its shortcomings. Its electoral cause is also advanced by the same dynastic factors Khama has banked on to gather support in the Central district, such as the prevalence of voting based on family lines.
Second, the plurality of opposition parties works in favour of the BDP. Instead of a single opposition party, voters disgruntled with the BDP could be presented with as many as four opposition options. This splitting of the opposition vote in a simple majority system was what allowed the BDP to garner victory despite losing the popular vote to the collective opposition in 2014. It will probably be the case later this month.
Third, there is reason to suggest that Khama’s clout may not be as strong as presumed after his coalition struggled to acquire nominations while challenging for power within BDP structures. In fact, any loyalty to Khama’s BPF will be largely limited to the Central district. Even in its stronghold, its potential haul could be challenged by a number of factors including sentiments that Khama’s decision to resign from a party that had become synonymous with his name was treacherous.
Elsewhere, there is the issue of the UDC’s shortcomings, which have been glossed over in the prevailing electoral discourse. Much like the ruling party, the UDC has suffered a rift caused by the departure of one of its founding members, the Botswana Movement for Democracy.
Furthermore, Khama’s new party could potentially harm the opposition’s interests, rather than advance them. This is based on the understanding that traditional UDC voters may be deterred by the visibly expedient pact with the party’s former prosecutor-in-chief, Khama, potentially resulting in apathy or protest votes for another opposition outfit or the BDP. This combination of factors could prevent the collective opposition from capturing the required eight seats from the BDP.
Finally, the ruling party has responded proactively to what will be its toughest electoral challenge yet. On top of the usual campaign overtures, it has undertaken symbolic gestures to sway citizens on the balance, including an unprecedented interest rate cut; shifting voting day from the traditional Saturday to a Wednesday, with Wednesday, Thursday and Friday allocated as paid leave days; and extending the duration of the hunting season, which benefits people dependent on game and payments for hunting permits.
These manoeuvres could very well carry the Masisi-led BDP over the line in an election that could be decided by the slimmest of margins.
What is certain is that the election is poised to be the tightest of affairs and the most significant test for Africa’s bastion of stability. Anything but a display of democratic consolidation could undermine this stability, which has rendered it a favourite among investors and which is integral to its economic aspirations.
Menzi Ndhlovu is a senior analyst at Signal Risk, an African risk advisory firm