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A news alert from Executive Research Associates (Pty) Ltd

Issue 106 19/8/2019
Botswana is experiencing unprecedented levels of political instability ahead of its 24 October 2019 general election. Its source is a persistent schism within the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) which has anchored the country’s politics since independence in 1966. Infighting is rooted in a public fallout between current BDP and national President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his predecessor Ian Khama, which saw Khama leave the BDP and form a new opposition party – the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF).

Khama and Masisi had long been allies and Khama handpicked Masisi as his successor before handing him the presidency in 2018. Khama followed the BDP policy of retiring early, enabling Masisi to serve as national president for a year and a half before facing a general election. This policy was seen as an effective way to ensure that the party retained the benefits of incumbency and of strengthening the BDPs electoral campaign.

However, Masissi quickly showed a level of independence and divergent policy views from Khama, ignoring his advice and input on vice-presidential and cabinet selections, angering the former president and fueling a growing rift between the two men. Masisi also moved against some of Khama’s key allies: he fired the head of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services, Isaac Kgosi, a long-time loyal lieutenant of Khama’s accusing Kgosi of corruption; and recalled Roy Blackbeard, Botswana’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom (UK), a close friend of Khama’s who had served as high commissioner for over 20 years.

However, Khama is likely most angry about Masisi undoing some of Khama’s key policies which the former president viewed as a key part of his legacy. This included controversially lifting Khama’s wildlife protection policies including the hunting ban and scrapping elements of the alcohol levy imposed during Khama’s presidency.

This catalysed a total deterioration of the relationship between the two erstwhile allies, with Khama publicly expressing regret for appointing Masisi and then breaking away from the BDP, a party founded by his father Seretse Khama. He then formed the BPF and endorsed other opposition parties such as the opposition alliance, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC).

This split and the creation of the breakaway BPF has created unprecedented political certainty. While the BDP was previously presumed most likely to win in the 2019 election (as it has since 1966), an October victory is no longer a sure thing.

The upcoming election was already expected to be one of the most closely fought in Botswana’s history. The BDP only won 46.45% of the popular vote in the 2014 election and retained its majority primarily due to the country’s constituency-based system with the party holding onto 45 of the 67 available National Assembly seats. This was down from a popular vote victory of 53.26% in 2009. The BDP’s decline was expected to continue due to natural voter attrition and frustration over growing public sector corruption and perceived worsening governance.

The formation of the BPF under Khama has created an additional, serious, electoral threat to the BDP. This is partly because Khama himself and national name recognition and remains popular as the son of the country’s founder Seretse Khama. More importantly, Khama is the paramount chief of the Bangwato which form a majority in the Central District – the 19 districts of which form the backbone of the BDP’s electoral support. Despite Botswana’s attempts to separate tribal and national politics, historically any member of a tribal royal family who contests an election tends to enjoy the overwhelming support of that area. Khama’s split from the BDP appears to have divided the Central District between those who place the BDP ahead of clan loyalty and vice versa.

The BPF’s clearest purpose is to seek revenge on the BDP and Masisi and ensure that he is the first president to lead the BDP to an electoral loss. This is highly likely as the BPF only needs to draw enough support from the BDP in enough constituencies to ensure it loses its majority and enable an opposition coalition to take control of parliament.

This is arguably the worst time for Botswana to be undergoing a period of political unease. The country’s reputation as Africa’s best governed state is already threatened due to rising levels of public sector corruption, aging institutions and drops in its Ease of Doing Business ranking in the past few years.

Botswana has several structural challenges, ranging from its land-locked nature to poor agricultural potential; however, the country’s stability and good governance have made it a leading state and an attractive investment. Should this reputation be threatened by poor governance and political instability it could have serious implications for the country’s economy and investment environment.

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