BPF: Another socialist democratic party on a different day?

Biggie Butale believes he could be the country's next president. PIC: KEOAGILE BONANG
Biggie Butale believes he could be the country's next president. PIC: KEOAGILE BONANG

'Oh boy, another "new" political party!', voters must think. But political parties are good for democracy. Multiparty democracy is healthy, ideal and should be desired, particularly if political parties are competitive.

The ruling party, ideally, needs to harbour some fear that it might lose power. The fear must be cherished to increase chances of a responsive and accountable government.

And to this effect, Botswana desperately needs a competitive political system with competent opposition political parties to keep the ruling party on its toes.

Whether the new splinter political party will add to the prowess of opposition politics or it will be another ‘oh boy, not another one’ moment is yet to be seen.

The new political party, the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF), led by former president Ian Khama as its patron and a host of other former Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) members has just put out an election manifesto, after months of grasping at straws and drifting aimlessly it seemed.

I framed the title of this piece to reflect what I thought majority of the issues the BPF manifesto attempted to communicate: a social democratic party with strong commitment to a political, social and economic philosophy that supports economic and social interventions that promote social justice within the context of a liberal democracy in a capitalist mixed economy. And that is exactly what Botswana is; a welfare state with strong capitalist tendencies.

The BPF is an expected, unsurprising addition to Botswana’s mix of left-leaning socialist democratic parties.

The issues it articulates in its manifesto are within proximity to the same issues that the BDP, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) and the Alliance for Progressives have as part of their electoral agenda (parties which also have socialist democratic leanings).

And so, there isn’t any radical paradigm shift that the BPF is bringing to Botswana’s political landscape except for giving the BDP a run for its money in the Central District and its ‘unofficial’ alliance with the UDC.

Socialist democratic leanings in moderation seem to be the current rage and obsession, with politicians like Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or AOC as she often goes, becoming the new faces of the movement. But the BPF is no Bernie nor is it AOC.

The BPF manifesto is without a doubt a very rushed piece of work. Understandably so, the party itself was a rushed conception, created to intercept and ‘disrupt’ the BDP’s five-decade old governance streak. The manifesto’s ideas and policy propositions are written in one-line sentences, almost in bullet form (but with no bullet points), without context or further elucidation.

As a whole, the document doesn’t project a pragmatic ‘state governance’ persona. The effort wasn’t taken as seriously as it should have. But the fact that they remained within the fine margins of promising valid propositions must be applauded. In election season, sometimes it’s tempting to take the nation by storm with wild ideas like ‘free beer every Friday!’.

Their ideas linger mid-air, like a helicopter that hovers over land, leaving voters to guess and think the rest for themselves. There is little to none prior diagnosis to which the party seeks to speak to.

The entire BPF existence and its ‘we will work with other opposition parties’ rhetoric has been a race against time. It seems the BPF is not only piggybacking on some of the opposition’s electoral pledges, but also seems to be operating on the same problem diagnosis.

I’m not one to say, but the party’s core values of Botho, Self-reliance, Unity, Integrity and Democracy bear a striking resemblance (almost like a copy and paste) to Botswana’s national values. If you think about it, what a clever way to play off and truly represent the ‘patriotism’ in their name.

This isn’t to say the party has no great ideas. They do! Their entire manifesto, though without prior context or proper diagnosis of the country’s critical health condition, speaks to many of the current problems of unemployment, poverty, education, health care, corruption and income inequality.

They speak of direct election of the president, a people-centric governance style, inclusive, participatory democracy, a presidential council of advisors, constitutional review etc.

All great ideas, but these are not entirely new ideas. Then again, there’s nothing new under the sun. The same propositions have been made by all the parties, including the BDP itself. What would’ve set the BPF apart would’ve been a comprehensive analysis of their own policy propositions and the important grey area of transition from policy to implementation.

Disregarding the manifesto and its rushed quality, the BPF itself has a lot of existential questions to answer. Why are they uniquely placed to drive any significant change to the status quo? Why does their pro-poor narrative carry an aura of exploiting a populace that will vote for them without any questions asked?

What is Khama’s role in their party besides the number crunching draw card? Do they find their formative mission to ‘solely disrupt the BDP’s stronghold in the Central District’ problematic?

There is however, a recurring problem not only within the BPF, but that runs across the lot of political parties running for elections.

Many of the parties have this socialist-inspired idea of heavy state involvement in economic development and must accept that markets are fairly efficient mechanisms for allocating resources, determining where supply and demand should settle and what wage levels are economically sustainable.

Market-based economic activity has won the ideological battle against communism and government command-based systems for a reason.

I’m under no illusion that this election will be determined by debates about which political party is more left-leaning or centre-of-the-left than the other, not in any fundamental way.

Only a handful of voters would care about commitment to ideology or principle. Ideology will surely not determine who the voters put into Parliament in October. It will, as it should be, be more about the crux of bread and butter issues that voters care about. And even then, I’m not aptly convinced that the BPF makes a compelling case to be part of the next government, especially that they didn’t make sufficient effort to demonstrate their case in their manifesto.

As a new, smaller party than its birth mother BDP, the BPF has the luxury of whipping up a sub-standard manifesto and selling pipe dreams without any intense scrutiny.

But in the long term, the movement will likely have a difficult time justifying their existence once the Khama ‘magic’ fades away and the chap finally decides to excuse the nation from politics.

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

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