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No internal party democracy or without internal party justice?

How often have you heard party members lament the lack of internal party democracy? How often have you heard civil society lament that the voices of the people’s representatives – Members of Parliament (MPs) - are undermined by Cabinet-controlled party caucuses? It all gets obscene at times.

There was a time when some party members of parliament, we are told, were rounded up and made to sign undertakings to vote an executive preferred choice. It is easy to lambast party executives for overbearing conduct. We must remember, however, that no one is really forced to choose, one way or the other. It is all about integrity. That involves the fortitude to resist unlawful and unconscionable instructions, even from party bosses. A High Court colleague of mine said at one time that ours was more an integrity crisis than a lack of internal party democracy. I have sympathy for her views.

I am mindful of the tensions inherent in the enquiry. It presents itself in the question whether elected representatives, sitting in parliament, are beholden to the electorate, the party or their consciences. It must be remembered, in that tension, that the electorate is a non-partisan collective. It includes members of all parties and no parties.

Once voted into office, a member of parliament represents, I would argue, a base greater than his party following and is obligated to act in their best interest as a collective. Since the interests of the collective electorate is general incapable of reconciliation, and since a referendum cannot be conducted on every subject, I would maintain therefore that elected representatives are beholden firstly to their consciences, regard being had to the best interests of their constituencies and the overriding consideration of the national interest and only after, their parties.

The American system offers a perfect illustration for my argument. It is not unknown for sections of Republican and Democrats to vote together on a case by case basis by reference to their best judgement as to what is in the national interest.

The tension between party and the electorate and what each side represents and demands from the representatives would make a good case for academic study. It is not, however my intention to interrogate it here. It would be obvious, from what I have stated so far, that I believe that representatives should be under no dictation when voting on matters affecting the national interest.

But at times I have wondered whether that is really the root cause of the problem. I strongly believe that the problem might be more with regards to internal party justice, a subject that should be receiving attention of the parties’ base but which receives very little. Invariably, party splits are blamed on factional wars. Unfailingly, members of party disciplinary committees are involved in such

wars. As a result, disaster is often the inevitable result. Internal party justice, or the lack thereof, is the single biggest problem with parties across the political spectrum.

It explains, amongst others, why parties become hostage to their leaders. The same considerations of justice that protect the general citizenry from the excesses of the State must be honoured in internal party processes. Otherwise party cohesion shall always be a pipe dream.

Political parties in Botswana, ought to have learnt the bitter lessons resulting from lack of internal party justice. It is internal party justice that insures and protects internal party democracy. It is internal party justice that bolsters member confidence in party structures.

In many cases neutral processes and systems are in place and the rules and principles are well understood. It often all boils down to the credibility of the people in control of the mechanisms in a set case. Rules and processes, in and of themselves, are no guarantee for internal party justice. The solution might be in structurally independent dispute resolution mechanisms. Whilst mundane issues of day-to-day party governance can be properly dealt with through ordinary structures, there is a level at which a more independent approach must be adopted if justice is to be seen to be done. A disciplinary committee should, in appropriate constitutionally laid out cases, be constituted from outside the party.

That is especially true where the leadership itself might be conflicted and might have an interest in the outcome. Many retired magistrates, senior lawyers and judges would be willing to arbitrate over party cases for free if not for nominal remuneration.

There is need to rethink the disciplinary procedures of party constitutions with a view to broadening them and ensuring internal party justice. Employers have learnt and accepted that reality and often outsource consultants to adjudicate over disputes where management cannot fairly adjudicate by reason of possible conflict.

Parties are, in a way, like football teams and societies. They have internal affinity to power mongering. It makes no sense for one power monger to judge another let alone to pretend that they can administer justice against their adversary. Unless there is a bold and conscious departure from the status quo, party unity shall be a dream. Strongmen and women will always emerge to the detriment of the voices of party electorates unless there are checks and balances fashioned to keep their ambitions in check. Internal party justice is what our parties need. Internal party democracy will be the result.

Chief On Friday



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