A voter's dilemma

Voters in a queue. PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO.
Voters in a queue. PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO.

With less than three months to go before Botswana’s national election, the country finds itself bombarded from all sides by different crises of different proportions.

The political debate space has gotten messier and deviated from the ideal to the level of ‘getting power by any means necessary’.

Elections are naturally a heated contestation of personalities, and if we are lucky, a hot contestation of ideas, solutions and policies. With this year’s election cycle, we’ve been treated to a tad bit of both.

Although the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) has been successful in setting the agenda for this election with their key speaking points from their manifesto, the substance has been lost, as it often does, in other less thrilling gibberish.

In politics when key political players are at war with themselves, that’s bad news for the voter. It means voters will be treated to heated exchanges on unnecessary issues that border on character assassinations and propaganda. These may be weapons of war and rules of engagement for political parties, but for voters, it’s a waste of time and a source for further disinterest.

In enviable contrast to many democracies around the world, Botswana’s elections are always free and peaceful. Whether they are fair is another story, another debate for another time.

But in the same breath, does it really matter what political parties are doing, how they are behaving and who they manipulate to attain state power? What is the average voter preoccupied with? Can we map out what a typical Motswana voter looks like in terms of their ideological inclinations, historical or ahistorical leanings? Can we predict how a Motswana millennial will vote or if they will vote at all?

Mapping or ideologising the Motswana voter is a difficult task, especially the modern, middle class millennial, fresh out of university and transitioning into adulthood, who, in most cases is also in the process of firmly establishing their politics. Botswana’s political system and its participants were not borne out of any violent struggle for independence or civil rights.

It is this fact that paints a picture of how our voting has been mapped out by all other events except armed struggle. We do not start waves of powerful protests that begin hashtag movements, spreading across the globe like wildfire.

Our fabric is unique, making the Motswana voter a simple yet complex, sophisticated political animal: a double-edged sword this has been. When needed to stand up and hold leadership accountable, our meek nature has cost us billions in taxpayer money lost to corruption and incompetence.

How do political parties perceive a typical voter and how do they in turn respond to this perception? Do political parties spend time analysing their consumers and crafting their message in turn? That is highly unlikely. Botswana’s political parties have for years crafted their message blindly, blanketed across the spectrum. As a result, they have at times appeared out of touch and tone deaf.

Understandably so, for many years the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) had been strong in the Central District.

For historical reasons this made sense and as a result, the party didn’t have to craft their message anyhow. What worked for the founding fathers worked for the succeeding leadership for decades, and the fabric of the voter remained largely the same with very few changes over time.

The majority of voters are not preoccupied with theories of political change, old age Chinese or European ideologies and orthodoxies. They do not wonder whether they stand on the right or left of an issue, conservative or liberal. But when issues they identify with come up, they will take a stand.

Every era has had its own type of voter. The Sir Seretse Khama-era had voters that voted along monarchial, independence era inclinations. Today’s voter is more complex, less idealistic, less sentimental about Bechuanaland nostalgia, more vocal on alternative platforms and more unpredictable on whether they will show up to vote or not. Perhaps that explains why political parties fumble when it comes to crafting strategy for alternative platforms, and at times prefer to disengage social media altogether.

At the same time the nascent nature of this new age social media activism, presents a perfect opportunity to craft the type of voter that translates their hashtag activism into real, tangible actions that demand accountability throughout political terms.

Political parties, therefore, have tended to interpret voters differently or indifferently. Many tend to nurture their relationship with the already converted, party loyalists, always-clad-in-party-regalia, party-mantra-chanting cadres.

Essentially, they have disregarded a whole other constituency: the politically homeless, the disenfranchised (the ‘why bother to vote at all’ brigade) and the diaspora vote.

These are a portion of voters who say, “I’m not interested in taking part in the daily shenanigans of party loyalty, but I want to influence the composition of my Parliament.” This has remained an untapped market for parties because they have remained caught up in the mudslinging and shade throwing part of their world.  

A voter could find the basic policy positions of the BDP compelling. The party supports the idea of a welfare state, which many Batswana are grateful for as beneficiaries of free education and healthcare.

Many have seen and experienced poverty and have, more importantly, witnessed the social context in which poor people’s agency remains undeveloped.

And yet they may not be sure that they could actually get themselves to vote for the BDP. Given how endemic corruption, complacency and inefficiency have become in the state under successive BDP governments, the gap between the policy ideals and delivery was (and still is) big and growing.

And so, it becomes difficult to reward underperformance, even if it is dressed up under the guise of a ‘new dawn’ with President Mokgweetsi Masisi. When contemplating the alternative, it’s also possible to be left unsatisfied by the idea of any of the opposition parties giving the country the regime change they yearn for.

There’s decent evidence that UDC and others have contributed compellingly to national debate in Parliament, in the media and in the comfort of our homes. They empower their young activists and value the contribution that young people bring to their little movements.

They have also proposed and passed incredibly argued Bills in Parliament and could maybe do well if given a chance to run government.  On the other hand, they have taken longer than necessary to consolidate themselves, find their feet and gather sufficient national consensus to remove BDP from power. Too many tactical blunders stand in their way.

And so, at the end of it all, what a difficult choice it seems for the voter: an incumbent political party that has a decent vision (sometimes), but which ultimately suffers from profound leadership, ethical and ideas crises? Or an opposition lot filled with well-meaning, skilled, hardworking but with a somewhat misplaced set of convictions and who can’t seem to organise themselves well enough to be an effective opposition that transitions from a government in waiting to a government of the day?

With so much vitriol spewing out of political party circles, it wouldn’t be a misplaced assumption that dissatisfaction with service delivery would lead to voters staying away from the polls in non-violent protest.

But voters must remember that staying away from the polls doesn’t build or influence the composition of parliament in their favor. Abstaining from voting will only perpetuate the status quo or worse.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea. He writes on the intersections of politics, international trade and foreign policy.

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