In the 2014 general election, the Botswana Movement for Democracy, (BMD) and its coalition partners were the biggest threat to the Botswana Democratic Party's (BDP) five decades of consecutive governance.
A splinter party of the BDP, BMD was perhaps the most talked about political formation, its messaging hit home, its energy was new, young and vibrant, and it could’ve easily become the main opposition political party or the next government.
BMD’s future was to be written in history. For the first time in decades, in my view Botswana’s political landscape had nuance, a varied array of intellectual discourse driven mainly by a young crop of anti-establishment (read anti-Khama) activists that were ready and willing to change the status quo.
The formation of the BMD was sparked by one of its founders, the late Gomolemo Motswaledi’s legal challenge against former president Khama’s constitutional powers.
But after so many flip flops, tussles and turns, tactical blunders and coups, the party faces a difficult series of questions for themselves and the country. Who will they be? What will it do and what will its place be in the current political climate?
From its early days, there was only one challenge haunting the new movement: would its energy transcend the election season? Would the grouping find common ground to work together over a sustained period of time?
BMD’s fortunes have not gotten easier over time. The party has since tussled for power, recognition and relevance as part of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) and has also given birth to another splinter party, the Alliance for Progressives, (AP). As if that wasn’t enough, it has been in and out of court, attempting to seek legal remedies to their political misfortunes.
The remaining BMD, led by Sidney Pilane now projects an imperceptible image and shadow of its former self, battling God knows what, while the small following it had, slowly disintegrated, with members finding refuge in other political parties or staying out of politics altogether.
While it is only natural for what was once promising to end up in the scrapyard, the BMD story presents a perfect case study of power, politics and modern democracy. Botswana’s political independence has produced a durable five-decade old democracy with relatively strong institutions.
The same has not been the case for opposition political parties. The gimmicks that have also occurred amongst all the political parties make us think and ask if we really need political parties anymore. The flaw with the BMD and every other political party, is and always has been a crisis of leadership.
The major cause of shifts in the country’s politics over the last decade or so has been attributable to a leadership crisis in said political formations. So how can we make sense of these shifts and changes? The main characteristic today seems to be a fluidity of electorate affiliations leading to, for example, the disappearance altogether of whatever little ideology parties like Botswana National Front (BNF) and Botswana People’s Party used to subscribe so strongly to.
Within a space of a little more than a decade the decline of BPP, MELS, Botswana Congress Party (BCP) and BNF as individual parties with strong individual convictions, the upsurge, then retreat of the BMD and recent emergence of the AP and Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) all makes for a really messy but strong melting curry pot of political parties who claim to be so different yet so much
The results of the 2014 national elections and, to be honest, other elections before that, seem to suggest a shift in Botswana politics. That shift is clear: more and more voters are voting the BDP less, and significantly voting opposition parties to grow their numbers in Parliament and their footprint, or just staying home altogether.
It’s no longer easy to explain how voters think, but this is what we know for sure: there’s increasing dissatisfaction with BDP and a feeling of uncertainty with opposition parties.
As a result, the fact that opposition parties have been struggling to organise effectively makes the BMD case a familiar one amongst many. The uniqueness of it, perhaps, was the expectation it built up, how fast it grew and how strong and influential it became in opposition circles.
The development doesn’t mean that its problems happened in isolation. I contend that the UDC coalition and its current leadership, specifically how it’s power dynamics played out, made it difficult for individual political parties to self-actualise.
It has been particularly difficult for parties that remained outside of the Umbrella, mainly because of how the UDC painted them (case in point, the BCP in 2014). It is almost impossible for any opposition party to succeed outside the UDC. This is nothing to brag about. It presents a dilemma for Botswana’s democracy and for opposition parties.
Even if a political movement joins the Umbrella, the rate at which older parties like BNF and BCP have grown and self-actualised individually is different in contrast to smaller and newer parties. Being individual parties outside of the coalition gave them plenty of time to build internal structures and sustain themselves even in the face of outside confrontation.
The same was not the case for the BMD. Within only a few years of its formation, the party had become a founding member of the UDC, having missed out on a solid opportunity to define itself first outside the UDC structures.
So, what is the BMD to do then in the face of such an aggressive existential crisis: realign or disintegrate? Perhaps the party would do itself justice by scrapping its entire leadership and starting from scratch. Just kidding! But think about it. Whoever takes on the mantle of leadership at the BMD will have a difficult task ahead.
As it stands, it is difficult to gauge who would be best suited for the job because political parties don’t invest in succession plans anyway. It would have to be a new face, grounded in founding principles of the party when it was first envisioned by Motswaledi. To realign the BMD would also be an exercise to reposition it in the current political climate.
A cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the party can fare well by itself or should join a strategic alliance would have to be made. In its current form, history will only eviscerate it from the face of the earth, and what an opportunity to miss, to document the times of ‘what a man, what a man, what a mighty good man….’
*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.