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The battle for the soul of the country

BAKANG NTSHINGANE
The election witnessed a strong voter turnout. PIC: PHATSIMO KAPENG
This has been a great battle, one of the most intense in fact.

Which party would win the majority was never in doubt in the preceding years, but this year was different and filled with uncertainty.

The parties made serious attempt to debate polices. It is also reasonable to assume that more than a few of those who did vote chose not what they would prefer but what they thought was least likely to do damage.

In a few years when we look back, this will be the election that shook up the trees. The results will determine the direction, immediate and future, of the country.

The outcome, if in favour of the incumbent, will validate the approaches and focus of a much scrutinised, vilified Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) administration.

Whether the electorate votes to retain in office the incumbent President Mokgweetsi Masisi or they elect one of the opposition parties is still yet to be determined.

In India and a few other countries, ballot papers include a ‘None of the Above’ option; voters who reject all the candidates can say so directly. If this option had been available to Batswana on October 23rd, ‘None of the Above’ may have won a working majority.

The preliminary results demonstrate that Batswana have a lot to say through the ballot and the messages were clear, yet mixed and split amongst opposition parties and independents.

The number of candidates and political parties seeking political office in the country is not only symptomatic of the vastness of perspectives on the current state of affairs of the country, but a reflection of the utter dysfunctionality of the political party processes to some degree.

This deficiency includes the inability of all the major parties to substantively deal with the infightings and internal battles.

On policy issues, the major parties have blurred programmatic identities reflecting the lack of profound ideo-philosophical directions among them.

Where personal differences were not managed well, defections were the result as we have seen. With a glaring lack of ideo-philosophical anchors, floor crossing based on short-term individual interests have been on the rise in the last couple of months before the elections.

Most notably, the breakaway from the ruling party and formation of the Botswana Patriot Front (BPF) and the split of the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) into the Alliance for Progressives (AP) are a case in point.

Given the situation, the outcomes suggest that the electorate was left with no choice but to settle for a lesser evil amongst multiple parties and their candidates. Still, there were several real choices in the election.

In this perspective, the first option was to sustain the project of a ‘new dawn’ propagated by all the parties but with different strands. Masisi promised a new Botswana under the guise of ‘a new face, a new president, a new era.’

The AP had a whole tagline of ‘imagine a new Botswana’ while the Umbrella for Democratic Change also promised a new country with new ideas, jobs, decent lives and institutions.

The other choice, propagated mainly by opposition parties and the incumbent BDP, was the narrative of ‘a vote for the status quo’ would be akin to going

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back to Botswana’s tainted past which favoured only an opportunistic few.

The BDP also ran with that, painting the opposition’s alliances with Ian Khama as an endorsement of the Khama family’s return to politics and government.

One of the most consequential causes of this election outcome, which in essence is a very split electorate stems from this: with a severe lack of any guiding principles, the party system that produced the candidates at all levels of the contest is rife with lack of internal coherence. There were also a lot of newcomers and a very disappointing number of women standing for election.

The younger contenders had a lot of significant intellectual capital and depth to drive their ideas of a radical change. But they were unfortunately consigned to the margins mainly due to resource constraints.

The early results signal the grand return of the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) and perhaps, a demonstration of its resilience and strength that should not be undermined.

Dumelang Saleshando and Dithapelo Keorapetse’s victories, coupled with Dr. Gobotswang’s lead over Dorcas Makgato cast a positive light on a party that was enemy number one in 2014. Now their return to prominence serves as a validation for the coalition project.

The BPF’s good run in the Central District, particularly at local government level means Ian Khama’s heavy campaigning worked. Whether that will translate to parliamentary level is highly unlikely, save for his brother, Tshekedi Khama’s victory in Serowe west.

There are also a few shockers of note. First is Pono Moatlhodi’s return to the nation’s radar which came as a surprise, giving Tonota’s incumbent Thapelo Olopeng a tough run.

The Tonota voters seem to be snubbing Olopeng who has had a good run over the last five years.

The second, which may not be so prominent but worthy of note is Chillyboy’s unexpected lead and impending victory in Mogoditshane. Ndaba Gaolathe and Duma Boko’s very tough runs may be too close to call.

If they lose, which is highly likely, this will go down as two of the biggest upsets in this election cycle. Another shocker comes from Gaborone Central that voted unanimously voted for the BDP at local government level. BDP is also leading the parliamentary race.

At the core of the elections is an institutional issue directed to the IEC’s preparedness after several reported irregularities on the voters’ roll, staff capacity in areas with large voter population and a very visible absence on the technology and social media front.

Essentially, the 2019 elections were yet another test run for the opposition and also a chance for Masisi to consolidate power within the BDP he inherited from Ian Khama.

There’s a bigger project for opposition that is to build an attractive and irresistible alternative to the incumbent.

This election will be a great moment of rebuilding and introspection for all the parties and candidates, but more importantly for the country as it battles to refine its political identity and raise the bar for political leadership.

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



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