The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the rules are privileging Botswana’s ruling party

Voters sit under umbrellas as they queue outside a polling station in the capital Gaborone to cast their ballot during the general elections in Botswana, on Oct. 24 2014. Botswana’s ruling party faced an unprecedented test against an invigorated opposition as one of Africa’s most stable democracies voted in general elections. (Monirul Bhuiyan/AFP/Getty Images)

Continuing our series of Monkey Cage Election Reports, the following is a post-election report on the recent Botswana elections.


More than 680,000 Batswana went to the polls on Oct. 24 to vote for members of parliament and local councilors. Despite serious tensions in the run-up to the elections, the election went smoothly overall. Many citizens arrived at the polls early and, with a few exceptions, voting ended as scheduled. The mood was upbeat and sometimes emotional as citizens cast their ballots. International observers commended Botswana for a peaceful and orderly voting process. Election day appeared as merely a pause in Botswana’s ongoing power struggle.

President Ian Khama’s party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), has formed every government since 1965, the year before Botswana gained independence. As expected, the BDP renewed its legislative majority, winning 37 of the 57 constituencies (64.9 percent). For the first time, the BDP’s vote share fell below half, to 46.7 percent. It owes its legislative majority to disproportionalities arising from the first-past-the-post electoral system. Fully 44 percent of the new MPs (25 of 57) were elected with less than 50 percent of the vote in contests with three or more candidates. The BDP candidate won more than half (14) of these constituencies.

This was the first election since the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) broke away from the BDP in 2010. The BMD contested the elections as part of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), a federation of parties that also includes the Botswana National Front and the Botswana People’s Party. The UDC won 17 constituencies (29.8 percent) with 30.9 percent of the vote. The Botswana Congress Party (BCP), which did not participate in the UDC, won 19.6 percent of the vote but only 3 seats (5.3 percent). The parliamentary elections attracted 29 independent candidates, but none won a seat; collectively, they garnered slightly less than 3 percent of the votes.

ESRI story map created by Marius Burger and Liezel Botha, shared with permission.

When a party wins an absolute majority of the elected seats, Botswana’s parliamentary system does not require a vote of investiture for the head of state. Thus, the BDP’s legislative majority delivered a second presidential mandate for Ian Khama.

Botswana’s parliament includes 57 elected MPs and 4 “specially elected” or nominated MPs (SEMPs). Immediately after his inauguration on Oct. 28, Khama submitted a slate of four nominees for endorsement by the newly elected MPs: two parliamentary candidates who had been defeated at the polls; the finance minister, who had not contested elections; and the permanent secretary to the Office of the President, who resigned after his nomination. For the first time, the opposition offered two alternative nominees: the deputy Secretary General of the BMD and a leader of the public sector unions. Voting followed party lines, ensuring approval of the president’s slate. The four SEMPs push the BDP’s legislative majority to 67 percent.

A few hours later, the new government took the country into unchartered territory. The Attorney General informed the BCP, BDP, and UDC that the government had filed an urgent application to the High Court challenging the constitutionality of provisions in parliamentary Standing Orders that require the use of a secret ballot when endorsing the Vice Presidential nominee and electing the Speaker and Deputy Speaker. The government then announced that opening of parliament and swearing in of MPs, which had been scheduled for Oct. 29, would be postponed indefinitely. Although linked to the looming legal battle, the announcement provided no explanation for the change of plans. On the 29th, the High Court set the hearing for November 6th. Some hours later, the President issued a proclamation calling for the opening of parliament on Oct. 30, allowing MPs to be sworn in and cabinet to be appointed. Nomination of the Vice President and the election of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, however, must wait for the decision of the High Court. Until the legal dispute has been resolved, Parliament will not sit.

The government’s challenge to the Standing Orders raises two issues: 1) whether members of the National Assembly can regulate their internal affairs and 2) whether a show of hands is preferable to use of a secret ballot for certain votes.

On the first issue, Section 76 (1) of Botswana’s constitution states, “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the National Assembly may regulate its own procedure.” But the constitution does not specify voting procedures for endorsing the Vice President and electing the Speaker and Deputy Speaker. Khama’s lawyers and the Attorney General argue that voting should be by a show of hands and that, in requiring the use of secret ballot, the Standing Orders violate the constitution. They assert that the addition of requirements beyond those laid out in the constitution amounts to constitutional amendments.

On the second issue, the choice of voting procedure affects the ability of the president (and other party leaders) to enforce party discipline by observing how MPs vote. A secret ballot enables BDP MPs who might have doubts about Khama’s choice to vote their conscience. If voting is done by a show of hands, they would have to break ranks openly, putting themselves in a tenuous position vis-a-vis the President. The government’s move suggests that Khama expects that his choice of Vice President will be controversial even within his own party.

Khama must choose his Vice President from among the elected MPs; parliamentary endorsement of his preferred candidate also depends on their support. The choice of Vice President is more important now than it was after the 2009 elections because Ian Khama’s term limit will expire at the end of March 2018, some 18 months before elections are due in 2019, and his Vice President will automatically become President. (President Quett Masire’s resignation in 1998 delinked presidential term limits from the electoral cycle). Anybody Khama chooses will face resistance. Some options, such as the nomination of his brother, Tshekedi Khama, would be especially polarizing. BDP MPs could also be expected to balk should Khama nominate the UDC leader, Duma Boko, with an eye to forming a government of national unity.

The choice of Vice President is not the only issue. The attack on the Standing Orders also reflects Khama’s stiff opposition to reelection of the outgoing Speaker, Margaret Nasha. In the previous legislature, Nasha earned the respect of MPs across party lines for her fairness in running parliamentary affairs and her defense of parliamentary autonomy. She antagonized Khama, however, in publishing a book critical of his style of governance and of the climate of fear within the BDP.

The balance of power in legislative-executive relations hinges on the High Court’s decision. Botswana’s constitution bestows considerable authority on the President. The autonomy of the legislature has been weakened further by the lack of research support, executive control over parliamentary staffing, and internal procedures that marginalized backbenchers and opposition MPs. With the growth of the opposition and deepening divisions within the BDP, MPs have revised the Standing Orders to create standing committees, ensure opportunities for opposition responses to major speeches, and more generally empower backbenchers and opposition MPs. If the High Court decides that the specification of voting procedures in the parliamentary Standing Orders is unconstitutional, it will further empower the President and reduce the already limited ability of Parliament to act as a check on executive power.


Amy Poteete is associate professor of political science at Concordia University. She has conducted research on politics in Botswana for 20 years.