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Is populism surging into Botswana politics?

Despite the rising wave of populism across the world and the damage populists have done in both the East and the West, voters are increasingly falling for populist rhetoric and the leaders who peddle it.

The likes of India’s Narendra Modi, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, US’ Donald Trump, Brazil’s Bolsonaro and now the UK’s Boris Johnson. How can responsible African leaders take the momentum out of populists’ sails?

The rise of populism has been the subject of countless debates and understandably so: populists’ misguided policies have had severely adverse political and economic consequences. Now, the risks associated with populism are approaching Botswana’s shores.

Election season brings a plethora of electoral promises, some valid, others purely populist, engineered to just win votes. Like many other African states, Botswana’s political landscape has been dominated by one political party in power for five decades. On the other hand, opposition parties in the country have lacked the financial and organisational ability to compete with the incumbent advantages of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).

As such, they have remained small, co-opted and fragmented. The BDP has maintained its hold on power through a mix of co-option and coercion.

During election season, the party has held mass political rallies to demonstrate its extensive support base. In addition, State media has historically given the ruling party more coverage and drawn more attention to its achievements.

The ruling party has survived in more ways than one through a mix of populist messages, especially popular reforms and policies that are passed conveniently on the cusp of elections.

There is no straightforward definition of populism.

It may be ideological, economic, social, or cultural. It may reflect left-wing or right-wing views. And it comes in different strands. Some populists will manufacture ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ narratives, some will garner popularity through short-termist initiatives, some will build messianic images of themselves.

But populism’s various strands tend to share common features. Populist parties are typically led by a charismatic individual, who pits “the corrupt elite” against “the people.”

This approach is most effective at times when the public is deeply frustrated with incumbents, establishment leaders and political parties, owing to deepening economic and social disparities, rising unemployment, or overt corruption.

Once in power however, their ability to deliver on their promises becomes questionable. Their economic policies make things worse, driving the country into crisis. A populist economic policy, according to the economists Rudi Dornbusch and Sebastián Edwards, mostly “emphasises growth and income distribution,” without regard for “the risks of inflation and deficit finance, external constraints, and the reaction of economic agents to aggressive nonmarket policies.” It then leads to weakening investment, economic efficiency, and productivity growth, trends that hurt the majority in the long run. The economic crises that many Latin American countries experienced in the 1970s and 1980s resulted from this dynamic.

Although today’s populists are not pursuing wildly expansionary macroeconomic policies, they still rely on fiscal stimulus and government intervention in markets.

There are high levels of anti-establishment sentiment and frustration with economic inequality and unemployment amongst Batswana. These are conditions ripe for populism to flourish.

Botswana’s opposition parties have dealt with a lot. Their strand of populism has popped off with the rise of a crop of charismatic leaders that became the champions of “the people” through rhetoric that targets marginalised groups, especially unemployed youth.

The current party campaigns across the board come with a strong promise to create jobs and provide resources for poor people with scant regard of how they can achieve this.

The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), for example, boldly ran with a promise to create a hundred thousand jobs in its first year of governance, increase old age pension, provide every student with a computer tablet and

raise stipends for university students.

These key promises have undoubtedly stimulated public debate, but their implementation pitch has been and still is sketchy.  Some of the UDC’s populist messages have injected competition into the otherwise stagnant party system and provided a voice for numerous voters who feel neglected by the BDP’s five decades of governance.  

Another wave of populism is reflected in the newly formed BDP splinter party, Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF). The BPF’s dramatic entry into the political space is premised on factional tussles within the BDP, and particularly, former President Ian Khama’s estranged relation with his successor and his old political home.

It is unclear what the core objectives of the party are, but its establishment and electoral strategy, it seems, is anchored on former President Khama’s popularity in the central district amongst largely lower-middle class rural voters who support his politics solely on the basis of his position as a paramount Chief.

Khama has always been a grassroots man, more engaged with rural communities through his charity initiatives.

Some may argue that he’s a populist. Khama’s strand of populism is two-fold: he’s a wealthy, privileged Paramount Chief. Secondly, his monarchial populism affords him unwavering loyalty from rural folk with legitimate, yet gullible politics.

As a result, soup kitchens, blanket donations and mere handshakes in the most rural parts of the country have always been Khama’s charm offensive and have unfortunately been the glue to his sustained stay in the halls of power even after leaving office; not because he’s a brilliant statesman with brilliant policy ideas, but because it takes only the right amount of coercive language and blanket donations to shift votes to wherever he needs them to go. It is this factor that the newly formed BPF hopes to tap into.

BPF plays off on the ideals of ‘patriotism’ and a patriotic narrative, casting doubt on the BDP’s new leadership. The party is a collective of former BDP members who left the party after President Masisi’s ascension to power. 

Their slogan ‘ke nako’ (it’s time), attempts to place urgency on the need for regime change. But the party itself doesn’t have a clear policy posture.

It uses pro-poor populist rhetoric to position itself as a party in touch with the people to build grassroots support from remote areas in the central district.

It is highly unlikely that the party will drive any paradigm shift in the country’s political landscape. But the BPF paradox is a funny one and a demonstration of how populism is a triumph of gullibility.

Here’s a group of people who have belonged to the most elite section of society, having enjoyed unparalleled privilege at the helm of governance.

As a result, their privilege has armed them with enough audacity to convince the most impoverished members of society that the other section of elites (their former acquaintances) is not the right group to listen to their concerns and create jobs for them.

Populist politics are very short-lived. History is replete with populist narratives that have come and go Botswana’s political parties exhibit very little ideological and programmatic variation. 

All parties focus on economic development, jobs, education, institutions, social policies etc. The country’s economy is still very dependent on diamonds and parties have little room to differentiate their electoral promises.

To be, or not to be a populist, that is the question…

*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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