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A news alert from Executive Research Associates (Pty) Ltd

Issue 110 30/10/2019
Botswana’s political system is often held up as an example of stability, peace and institutional strength on the continent. Its only major flaw, perhaps, being that it is somewhat too predictable. Indeed, the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has run the diamond-rich country of two million people since independence (1966) and, as the recent general election results suggest, that streak of form is not likely to end anytime soon. However, boring is not the qualifier one would use to describe the country’s recent politics. A rift between President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his predecessor Ian Khama (son of the BDP’s founder and the country’s first president Sir Seretse Khama) led the latter to leave the party, establish the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) and throw his weight behind the opposition alliance of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC). Prior to the polls, pundits had argued that a BDP victory was anything but certain and that an era of coalition government could be dawning.

This expectation was based on the fact that Khama’s stronghold of the Central District had 19 parliamentary seats up for grabs of the 29 needed to secure a majority (out of a total of 57). The opposition combined would have to wrest nine seats from the BDP in order to form a ruling coalition, and it appeared logical that if it were to happen, the seats would come from Khama’s region, where he also has the role of traditional leader of the Bangwato. That could have made his BPF, under the leadership of Biggie Butale, the kingmaker.

While this did not materialise, the number of BDP seats from the Central District plummeted from 18 in the 2014 poll to just six this year. The UDC took 10 Central District seats and the BPF secured three – its only parliamentary seats. However, the BDP was able to gain seats in Kweneng, South East and Southern so that, in the end, it increased its number of seats in parliament by one to 38. The UDC saw its number of seats decrease to 15 from 17 previously. The BPF and the Alliance for Progressives (AP) took the remainder.

Election forecasters who raised the possibility of a coalition government should not be judged too harshly. The country’s single-member constituency based first-past-the-post electoral system makes forecasting such polls a difficult task. This electoral system can see parties come to power, or cling to power, despite the majority of citizens voting against them. It can bring seismic shifts in representation, as the graph illustrates, in a single election rather than the creeping erosion of support one might expect in party-list electoral systems or ones with proportional representation.

In addition to increasing its presence in parliament, the BDP managed to take the popular vote – securing around 53% of ballots cast (official results are yet to be released and these figures are based on results reported with 83% of votes counted); something it was unable to achieve in 2014 when it took just under 47% of the popular vote. The additional boost to legitimacy attendant on the fact that the party won the popular vote should strengthen Masisi’s mandate and ensure he can put the challenge from Khama behind him. The UDC, meanwhile, may take some solace in the knowledge that it too was able to increase its share of the popular vote – up to around 36% from 2014’s 30%.

The BDP’s improved showing in the popular vote may be down to Masisi’s appeal with urbanites given that he built his political career in Gaborone. The BDP’s gains in especially South East and Kweneng – covering Gaborone and surrounds – can largely be ascribed to this personality factor. The President’s promises on the campaign trail perhaps did less to sway voters than his battle with Khama (thus securing the ‘anti-Khama vote’) and his hometown advantage in southeastern regions. Further, while promising jobs and a restructuring of the economy away from its perennial dependence on diamonds are par for the course in Botswana, Masisi has made bold moves since taking over the presidency – revising the policy towards the ivory trade and endorsing the court ruling overturning laws against homosexuality, for example – and the clear mandate given to him in this election could motivate further policy shifts.

Botswana’s politics has become a little less predictable of late, but it remains a stable, functional democracy. The opposition can take heart in the increase of their share of the popular vote, but the BDP – with or without the Khamas – remains in the driving seat and conservative, business-friendly policy can be expected for another five years at least.

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