Botswana has a reputation for political stability, democracy, sound economic management and good governance. This opinion is widely shared — by foreign governments, international financial institutions, organizations such as Freedom House and Transparency International, and even academics.
Developments in the run-up to the Oct. 24 elections have revealed a significant gap between Botswana’s reputation and reality. The campaign took a tasty turn at the end of July, when charismatic opposition politician Gomolemo Motswaledi died in a suspicious automobile accident. In September, another opposition politician was abandoned for dead in a ditch but survived; he claims to have been kidnapped and tortured by agents of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services. Other opposition politicians and activists complain about threatening phone calls and being followed. Some have been attacked but got away while others have moved to protect themselves.
There are also signs of media harassment. A journalist fled and obtained political asylum in South Africa, saying that he fears his government and that his life is in danger. His editor was arrested, and, after agents confiscated digital media and equipment, he was charged with sedition. Vandalism of radio transmitters disrupted broadcast of parliamentary debates.
The long-ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has resorted to desperate strategies to retain power. Private radio stations broadcast leaked recordings of BDP politicians discussing the inclusion of ruling-party campaign managers in cabinet meetings and using fake Facebook accounts to discredit critics. The president and the BDP campaign manager attacked the character and personal life of an opposition candidate who is also the leader of a rival tribe, inflaming ethnic tensions and personalizing the campaign.
Abuse of state resources has become more blatant. When pictures of the president’s campaign team traveling to a campaign event using military aircraft went viral on social media, the government responded by saying that the president has a right to military transportation for personal travel and may be accompanied by whomever he chooses. Meanwhile, conflicting intelligence leaks have flooded the media, variously claiming that the government is preparing to steal the elections, smuggling in fake ballot papers, or bringing in high-tech military and intelligence equipment.
Tensions have been building for some time. Scholars have recognized limits to Botswana’s economic development, the lack of effective checks on executive authority and the extent to which incumbency advantages limit democracy. My own research documents the increasingly contentious character of Botswana politics and shows how macroeconomic developments interact with electoral competition to influence policy-making, accountability and social mobilization. The government’s efforts to grapple with unstable revenues, divisions within the ruling party, and growing support for the opposition play out against the backdrop of institutional arrangements that leave tremendous discretionary power in the hands of the president.
Botswana experienced an unusually prolonged economic expansion driven by diamond exports in a context of stable commodity prices. Since De Beers lost control over the global diamond supply about a decade ago, the volatility of global diamond prices has increased. Reflecting developments in the mining sector, Botswana’s GDP grew by more than 8 percent in 2006 and 2007 but contracted by 7.8 percent in 2009. After rebounding to 8.6 percent in 2010, rates of GDP growth have fallen in each subsequent year. Figures for the first quarter of 2014 suggest an annualized growth rate of only 2.3 percent.
Fluctuations in mineral earnings were significant for Botswana’s recent economic difficulties, but the throttled economy was also suffering because of a major public sector strike and worsening problems with public utilities.
Botswana’s first public sector strike in 2011 enjoyed broad public support, but the government refused to negotiate. Union leaders ended the strike after eight weeks, with nothing to show for it. Now they have mobilized to punish anti-labor politicians at the ballot box. The unions claim responsibility for the defeat of several cabinet ministers during primary elections. Some union leaders have appeared at opposition campaign events or become opposition candidates.
Public utilities and services also show signs of strain. Water levels in the Gaborone dam, which services the capital, have fallen below 10 percent, promising worse water shortages on the horizon. Thus far, electrical outages are more frequent than dry taps. The situation reached crisis proportions in March 2014, when South Africa limited exports of electricity and Botswana’s newly commissioned power station failed. Lengthy blackouts resumed this month.
Political changes and institutions
Between 1989 and 1994, the ruling BDP’s vote share tumbled from 65 percent to 54 percent. Several factors contributed to its loss of support in 1994, including corruption scandals, labor unrest, a dip in diamond sales, and hopes for political liberalization that accompanied the end of apartheid in South Africa. There was also factional competition in the BDP in anticipation of the impending retirement of then-President Quett Masire.
This new sense of vulnerability prodded the BDP to reposition itself. The government co-opted elements of the opposition agenda, including lowering the voting age to 18 and creating a Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC). Two constitutional provisions addressed tensions over presidential succession. One introduced a 10-year limit on tenure as president. The other specified that, should the presidency become vacant between elections, the vice president would become president without a vote in Parliament.
In 1998, about 18 months before parliamentary elections, Masire resigned as president, triggering the new “automatic succession” provision and disconnecting presidential term limits from the electoral cycle. Unless and until the BDP loses an election, each president will choose his own successor. Masire’s vice president, Festus Mogae, became Botswana’s third president and in turn recruited Ian Khama as his vice president. In 2008, when Mogae’s 10 years in office expired and, about 18 months before elections in 2009, Khama ascended to the presidency.
Initially, many Batswana enthusiastically welcomed Khama, who entered politics as a well-respected military officer, traditional leader of one of Botswana’s largest tribes, and son of the first president. Rather than re-uniting the BDP, however, Khama became the focal point of factional conflict. By 2009, factional campaigns for central committee positions rivaled campaigning for the general elections. Khama forcefully backed one faction and did not accept defeat gracefully when his factional opponents won all elected seats. Within a month, he had suspended the elected secretary general, Gomolemo Motswaledi. The dispute ended in the courts, which ruled that the constitution grants the Botswana president immunity from prosecution for any action taken in his private capacity, including actions taken as president of a political party.
Despite the hardening of factional divisions, the BDP held together for the elections in October 2009, winning 53 percent of the vote and 79 percent of the seats in Parliament. But the BDP was badly divided, and Khama’s faction had a slim parliamentary majority. Finally, the party split. Motswaledi and members of his faction launched the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) in May 2010. The BMD and two other parties formed the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) in 2012.
The 2009 court decision and the 2010 BDP split set in motion a radical transformation of the BDP. These developments demonstrated that BDP members have no effective means of reforming their party from within. As long as the BDP forms the government, the constitution of Botswana reinforces the already considerable authority of the party president. Khama regularly uses coercion and his discretionary power to quell dissent. In political circles, it is widely thought that he has instructed the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services to spy on rivals within the BDP as well as on opposition politicians.
The composition of the BDP also changed. With the old factions marginalized, Khama has promoted members of his entourage — former military colleagues, business associates, close family friends and relatives who followed him into politics — and recruited new members united in their professed loyalty to Khama. Critics depict these newcomers as “tenderpreneurs” who entered politics with the hope of material gains. A new sycophancy took root, in which even senior politicians refer to themselves as “bootlickers.”
Still, the BDP remains highly fractious, as became apparent during primary elections. The stakes were high because Khama’s current vice president is retiring and, if the BDP is reelected in October, Khama must choose a successor from among the elected MPs. Presidential aspirants fought for nominations while de-campaigning rivals. The primary elections produced numerous disputes. Allegations of fraud and mismanagement forced the resignation of the secretary general and several re-runs. Lengthy disputes complicated campaigning; some ended up before the courts. An unusually large number of primary election losers resigned from the party to contest elections under another party’s banner or as independent candidates.
This is the context of Botswana’s 2014 elections. Declining government revenue, slowing economic growth, tensions with the public sector unions, and unreliable utilities combine to create a situation that any government would find difficult. For Khama, these difficulties are compounded by a fractious party organization that is increasingly difficult to hold together. Khama and his party are vulnerable. Although the divided opposition is not well-positioned to take advantage of the situation, a hung parliament cannot be ruled out.
Khama and his supporters take the possibility of an electoral loss seriously. They have responded with overt mobilization of state resources for political ends, intimidation, media repression, fear-mongering, personal attacks and deception. Anytime anything untoward happens to an opposition politician, such as Motswaledi’s death in an automobile accident, political foul play is immediately suspected. The police report that several officers witnessed the accident because they just happened to be surrounding Motswaledi’s car at the time did little to quell suspicions of a political assassination. Some dismiss opposition warnings as fear-mongering. And yet there are documented cases of torture and undisputed transcripts and recordings depicting dubious behavior by state and party officials. These tactics are troubling but not surprising given earlier responses to factional conflicts.
Whatever the outcome of the Oct. 24 elections, Botswana’s political horizon appears stormy. If the BDP wins a narrow legislative victory, it will be vulnerable to future splits and individual defections. If there is a hung parliament, the MPs will have to elect a new president by secret ballot; whoever wins will lack a partisan majority in the legislature. Such a situation could empower the legislature and enhance accountability, but it would also generate powerful incentives to reinforce presidential powers that could threaten the likelihood of needed institutional reforms, even if the opposition gains power.
Amy Poteete is associate professor of political science at Concordia University. She has conducted research on politics in Botswana for 20 years.