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Strange bedfellows or match made in heaven

BAKANG NTSHINGANE
Masisi broke a 10-year diplomatic freeze on China by travelling to the Oriental giant last year
External relations of Botswana's political parties have become a subject of intense scrutiny and debate.

With elections just around the corner, these relations have been a source of controversy, trickling down into questions of illicit financial flows, political party funding and whether any quid-pro-quo deals have been made in exchange for patronage. 

The Umbrella for Democratic Change has allegedly also had a few external relations of their own worthy of a side eye with controversial businessmen and South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (DA). 

The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has had too many to count. The party’s financial resources and assets have undoubtedly helped to keep them in power with relatively better organisational ability compared to opposition political parties.

Legislators have been dilly-dallying around the issue for decades. With clear legislative mechanisms to govern political party funding, voters would have a straight line access into the accounts and books of the political parties and political leaders they are voting for, encouraging transparency, a more robust and competitive political environment while discouraging a mafia style-backchannel approach that the wealthy use to slither their way into political discourse, making them unelected kingmakers in the process.

But party funding aside, the BDP’s relationship with the Communist Party of China (CPC) is an awkwardly fascinating idea worthy of intellectual probing.

The CPC has tons of relationships with tons of other political parties across the world. Since October 1, 1949, only one party has run China. Here lies this century old establishment, a grand old party, if you will, with very strong communist ideology and very little if any commitment to a liberal democratic order.

The party has led the country from the era of Chairman Mao to become the economic powerhouse it is today, but along the way has tolerated no opposition and quashed dissent. The party has also maintained a tight grip on the media. Party loyalty and membership has been essential for anyone who wants to climb the career ladder, whether in politics, business or even entertainment. At the very top is President Xi. 

In 2017, the party cleared the way for him to become president for life, even going to the extent of enshrining his name and ideology in the Constitution, elevating him to the level of founder Mao Zedong. No matter how you look at it, these are problematic red flags. We know what China is and what it stands for.

A Chinese scholar argued that “constitutionalism in general fits with the capitalist mode of production and bourgeois democracy and does not fit in with China’s socialist system of people’s democratic dictatorship”. Constitutional government has a market economy in which private property plays the predominant role as the basis unlike the Chinese socialist market economy in which public ownership is the basis. 

China doesn’t practice parliamentary democracy. The basis for their argument is that in a parliamentary democracy, a system in which ordinary people can vote for different parties, the parties available are in the pockets of the bourgeoisie.

 Parties can only win, if they have enough money, when parties have money, they get it from the bourgeoisie.

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This relationship turns the political parties contesting the election to subservient tools of the bourgeoisie and makes them govern in their interest.

While a system with multi-party elections, rotational government and Parliaments look more democratic, it is in fact beholden to the interests of the bourgeoisie, and not the people. 

In contrast, the people’s democratic system with People’s Congresses realises popular sovereignty through a mixture electoral and consultative democracy.  Unlike in parliamentary democracies people standing for elections for seats in people’s congresses are state financed, thus giving every candidate an equal chance of getting elected.

These are all compelling arguments and China has done well for itself with a system that works for them.  There are few similarities between BDP and the CPC. Both parties have ruled their countries and never seen any electoral defeat or regime change and have essentially turned their countries into de facto one-party states.

China’s case is more explicit than Botswana’s.  In addition, there’s a very blurry line between state and governing political party. State institutions are often used to give the incumbents advantage over political opponents, and there are heavy undertones of patronage. 

The two organisations are undoubtedly driven by common economic interests as opposed to a chance for two old friends to catch up over communist/socialist inspired banter at a local watering hole.

Botswana, under the BDP government has had strong diplomatic ties to China. Chinese companies and the Chinese government have over the years become a de facto construction partner, financier, ‘brother’, ‘sister’ and friend to most African governments.  Botswana also subscribes to the one China policy; a draw card China has used to leverage and ‘inspire’ loyalty in exchange for loans and grants for development projects.

The Chinese contend that their partnership is on equal footing and is different from the West; a claim that quickly crumbles at the mention of the Dalai Lama.

The BDP has hosted a Chinese delegation in Botswana, and the Chinese Communist Party has done the same in China. The parties clearly share more on the institutional, state planning and governance front as opposed to the intrinsic values of governance such as liberty, democracy and the will of the people.

The Chinese system is not perfect, neither is Botswana’s and BDP’s track in government. It seems both are willing to look away and unite on more pragmatic matters.

Both parties can learn a lot from each other and that is where the common ground emerges.

China is the world’s second-largest economy, the largest manufacturer, the largest trader in goods and the largest holder of foreign exchange reserves in the world.  In addition, China has become the largest trading partner of more than 100 major economies in the world, importing more than $2 trillion annually. Whether strange bedfellows or not, the benefits, at state and human to human levels far outweigh the obsession over the Communist Party of China’s sketchy governance record.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea.



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