Unpacking the caucus concept


It cannot be denied that caucuses in democratic political systems like Botswana play a vital role in decision-making processes of the legislature. But recently, some people decried the role played by the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) caucuses in the country’s democracy and are of the view that they should be abolished because they serve the party and not the interests of voters. Mmegi Correspondent LEBOGANG MOSIKARE reports

FRANCISTOWN: A University of Botswana academic and political analyst, Adam Mfundisi has outlined the role of the parliamentary caucus as it obtains in the parliamentary democracy system of Botswana.

This includes choosing floor leaders and presiding officer, allocating committee chairmanships and negotiating committee assignments amongst their members, deliberation amongst the party members and identifying different and distinctive interests and wings in the party group.

The other tasks of caucuses also known as parliamentary group or parliamentary party is formulation of party position regarding Bills and wider policy principles in specialised party committees before they are introduced into Parliament and persuasion of party members and disciplinary action to take a common position on important issues, according to the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network- a web portal with information on elections designed to meet the needs of people working in the electoral field.

The goal of the ACE network is to provide knowledge to people working in the field elections, with the intention of supporting credible and transparent electoral processes with emphasis on sustainability, professionalism and trust.

Asked about the impact of caucus on the legislature, Mfundisi said in Botswana since independence, the BDP has used parliamentary caucus as an instrument to instil party discipline amongst its cadres and has been maintained by different administrations to date with different and varied impact on parliamentary legislation.

“The impact of the caucus system depends to a large extent on the calibre of Members of Parliament (MPs) as well as on the influence of the Executive branch on them. The BDP backbench has gone through trials and tribulations since independence.

Since the Ian Khama administration, and now President Mokgweetsi Masisi regime, the BDP backbench has been weakened and has become an instrument of the Executive branch for legislative rubber stamping. There are no longer robust debates in Parliament to ensure that the Executive is accountable and acts ethically in the management of public affairs,” he opines. Mfundisi further said Parliament has become a lap dog more so because of a sterile and incompetent BDP backbench.

“The caucus regime is used to legitimise Executive decisions and actions devoid of parliamentary oversight. During Khama’s era, we learnt after his departure that BDP parliamentarians were instructed or directed to act or decide in certain ways by the President and his ministers.

This development is evident in Masisi’s administration where the erosion of inner-party democracy within the BDP is apparent. A cult of leadership has developed where MPs compete for favours from the President. Every MP wants to mention the name of the President to drive a point and be seen by the President to be loyal and an obedient servant.”

What we can safely say is that, Mfundisi added, BDP MPs have abandoned the interests of their voters. “Ours is a parliamentary system premised on representative democracy where MPs must serve the interests of diverse voters.

The First Past the Post (FPTP) requires MPs to serve the interests, needs, and aspirations of the constituents unlike in a Proportional Representation (PR) system where MPs are elected through a party ticket which demands of them to owe their allegiance to the party not the voters. BDP MPs vote as cohorts on most issues before Parliament,” says Mfundisi, who added that the BDP has adopted a bold strategy to frustrate opposition MPs in Parliament by rejecting worthy legislative proposals.

This, Mfundisi noted, ‘’has the potential to affect the chances of some of the MPs to be voted into office come 2024”.

“As the Leader of Opposition (LOO) rightly pointed out, the BDP MPs have turned into ‘voting cattle’. The damage to our democracy is visible and we must learn from SA particularly during President Zuma’s administration which culminated into State Capture enquiry. MPs must vote based on their conscience and in pursuance of public interests not whims and caprices of the Executive branch of government. The need for parliamentary independence is now and the constitutional reforms are needed more than ever in Botswana.”

Mfundisi is also of the view that the caucus system in Botswana has not lived up to its expectation. “The objective of the parliamentary caucus is to interrogate issues and agree on a party position which advance the interests of the people. It should provide room for divergent views and opinions amongst MPs.

There is need for a judicious balance between an MP’s personal interests, party interests, and the interests of voters. We operate in a representative democracy anchored on the FPTP not PR representative system,” Mfundisi stressed. For democracy to be nurtured, Mfundisi posits that there is need for ‘free vote’ on certain issues to allow MPs to vote on their conscience rather than directives from the party bosses.

He said: “It is becoming apparent that one of the objectives of the Anti-Defection legislation was to control the voting powers of the MPs. BDP MPs have become devoid of any leverage over the Executive branch of government. They are contributing to the ineffectiveness of Parliament. Parliament is used to rubber stamp the decision of the Executive.”

Mfundisi added: “ Therefore, the caucus system as practised by the BDP stifles inner-party and inter-party democracy. It makes Parliament to be a lap dog devoid of constitutional power to check and balance the powers of the Executive. Party discipline should not be used as an excuse to undermine representative democracy. MPs must make a rational decision whether they represent the people or party and by extension the Executive. Stringent party discipline ensures control of Parliament by the Executive thereby undermining the oversight responsibilities of Parliament. Democratic accountability is compromised by misguided MPs who view themselves as deployees of the BDP rather than servants of the people.”

Mfundisi is of the view that there are inherent problems associated with how the BDP uses its caucus. “...BDP MPs must navigate the political terrain carefully because public opinion and behaviour are changing. With a youngish population that is relatively educated, the political dynamics have changed. This population demographic is scanning the political space and will do what the United Party for National Development (UPND) recently did to the Patriotic Front in Zambia. They must start to put people first and party or government second in their political agenda.”

Quizzed about the secrecy of caucuses, Mfundisi said it breeds political corruption.

“Normally, after every caucus meeting, in developed democracies, the party whips pronounce what was deliberated on and conclusions.

Two former professors of Political Science at the University of South Africa, who had done extensive studies about the caucus system in South Africa and Africa, Clive Napier and Pieter Labuschagne, express Mfundisi’s opinions.

“In parliamentary politics and at all levels of government a caucus forms an essential structure in the functioning of a political party within a legislature, being an integral part of the strategic make up of parties from central Parliament down to the local level.

The leadership of political parties organise their members into groups, but individual members may also organise themselves into groups which are generally known as caucuses,” the scholars opined in their research paper.

They added: “In the various caucuses, general strategy, policies and the candidates to be voted for, or to be elected into office are decided and agreed upon – this, to ensure that the party demonstrates solidarity within the respective legislatures and to the outside world.”

Echoing Mfundisi’s sentiments, Napier and Labuschagne say that the secret manner in which a party caucus operates within a supposedly transparent democracy raises a number of concerns. Therefore, the question is whether such secrecy and the insistence that all party members of a caucus – particularly in parliamentary political systems – toe the party line, infringes on the diversity of interests that elected members are supposed to represent?

The purpose and values of democratic representation presuppose a direct line from the individual voter(s) to the representatives in a legislature, Napier and Labuschagne note.

“The caucus in effect inserts a space between individuals and their respective legislatures which may require that diverse interests be sacrificed for the sake of solidarity and a common strategy. The hands of the Executive, the experts explain, can be all over the MPs to the extent that MPs may negate their promises to the electorate.

“With the enlargement of the electoral area and the remuneration of legislators has come a widening of the potential choice of legislators and greater independence for them – hence the suggestion that legislators are more likely to have to fall in line with caucus rules and forsake some of their independence and idealism,” they opined.

However, they also note that the caucus is undoubtedly the strategic engine room of any political party (but moreso for larger political parties because of their growth and increasingly impersonal nature) and serves as the critical, strategic platform from which to find common ground on strategies, as well as to nominate and elect members.

The academics added: “Organising political parties in a cohesive unit, such as a caucus, is easily understandable from a strategic point of view where solidarity is important. Enforcing a unified and common strategy is not only essential for all political parties, but is central for success within the parliamentary system in terms of the interaction with opposition parties.

It is crucial for political parties and their leaders, the pundits stress, to ensure that their fellow party members (representatives in Parliament, or at other levels of government) adhere to party policy.

“For strategic reasons, it is important for all political parties to present a unified front to their respective oppositions, and to win internal legislative divisions or votes when called out on contentious issues

The importance of a caucus is its cohesiveness and its pursuance of a common strategy. By the same token, in specific situations it is important that strategies be devised in a clandestine manner to allow for maximum impact. Although the secretive nature of hidden strategies may undermine the lofty ideals of representative democracy, its practical value should also be considered in furthering party interests,” they add.

Napier and Labuschagne observed that caucuses may frustrate the ideals of a representative democracy, and that democratic values may be sacrificed for the sake of strategic gains.

“If there were disagreements on policy, or on what issue to support, modify or reject, the voters who voted their representatives into office would remain none the wiser about caucus decisions, because these entities operate in secret.

The caucus, in reality, amounts to a body in which the view of the majority will prevail, while the minority will have to bow to the interests of the majority.

Where the party leadership comprises members of the caucus, it is likely that the latter will follow the lead of the leadership. Where there is little or no overlap between party leadership and caucus membership, caucus decisions could diverge from party policy to take a more responsive stance towards voter interests.”

They added: “The primary purpose of a caucus is essentially to function as a filter to refine opposing views into a single, unified position. The caucus predetermines the unified view, and it is conceivable that the popular mandate on some issues with minority support may be sacrificed for the greater good of the party.”

They, however, say that caucuses can turn Parliament instead of being an area of open discussion into an office for simply registering decisions arrived at in a secret enclave.

The answer to the question posed earlier therefore cannot be answered emphatically.

“The main obstacle in the way of a simple answer is the secrecy in which caucuses operate. Internal deliberations are simply not accessible and, therefore, a definitive judgement cannot be made. Moreover, the operations of caucuses vary considerably from one political system to another. The closer the caucus membership is to the political leadership and party policy, the less likely caucus decisions will diverge from voter interests, ” they said.

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