The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) survived Ian Khama by a stroke of luck. But in its current form, if another Ian Khama were to lead the party, with a more responsive electorate, it would probably never survive.
In its current form, the BDP’s model of electing leadership and subsequently how they govern the country without appropriate bottom-up checks and balances is unsustainable and presents a risk for both the party and the country.
The ‘grand old party’ must look itself in the mirror, ask the difficult questions, or risk being phased out by a completely different strand of politics in the next decade.
The 2019 election pivoted on the question of whether a complacent and underperforming BDP could be trusted with five more years of government despite the troubling years of former president Ian Khama. The party went to the polls with all the odds stacked against it, characterised as a party that had overstayed in power. President Masisi inherited the most imperfect party in the most politically volatile and scrutinous era from his predecessor. The opposition wasn’t perfect either, and the dilemma the voters found themselves in was an impossible one (a typical stuck between a rock and a hard place scenario).
The credibility of key State institutions has been eroded, a stagnant economy, rising corruption, poor service delivery, an education crisis, deep-seated economic inequality and all the other problems we can throw in there. In addition, the party itself has been battling deep divisions, complacency, severe lack of accountability, patronage etc, also, characteristics of any political environment.
But the most significant challenge for the BDP was the blurred line between State and government. When the country was doing well, the party was happy to take credit; when the party needed to take a stand to hold its Parliament and its President accountable, it became docile when it did not need to be.
Like many old organisations, the BDP has struggled to keep up and transform as quickly as it needs to. The party has had fairly good runs and equally bad runs as well, with a lot of tactical blunders.
As I have written many times before, former President Ian Khama will go down in history as one of the most polarising political figures in modern Botswana history. Ian Khama may have governed in line with values and principles that the party held dear, but the totality of his brand of leadership may have just changed the fabric of the party and its legacy for the two-decade period of 1998-2018.
It was a first for the movement and its members, and perhaps the crafters of the party never anticipated any shock of this magnitude. Although Khama prided himself as a stickler for principles and rule of law, most of his leadership was plagued by a leadership style that was within the confines of the law and the party’s constitution but crumbled on the question of morality.
The line between what is legal and what is right has been crossed more times than we can count. Like the Parliament voting case for example, whether MPs should vote by secret ballot or by show of hands. The Democratic Party found itself with a leader who was principled yet stretched the confines of his power to the max, proving as we have posited many times that the constitution grants the Presidency too much power.
Whether or not the party has the power to keep that ‘absolute power’ in check is clearly a negative. Even if the party’s governing mechanisms had any power to keep the President in check, the system of consolidating power, that allows any leader to line up allies and patrons as the first line of defence for the President completely dilutes any accountability that the President may be obliged to exercise.
Thus, the starting point for any assessment of Masisi’s prospects is to note a certain political reality: that he is probably as powerful now as he has ever been and as powerful as he ever will be, but still, inheriting the same system that Ian Khama and three other Presidents ruled under.
But, as Marx poignantly pointed out, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”.To fix the toxic image that has been undoing the party’s legacy and image, President Masisi must set out to overhaul systems within the party that make it conducive for patronage to thrive. For decades the BDP has held on by a thread while its public approval ratings dwindled right before its eyes.
The founders of the BDP did not create these mechanisms with the expectation that they must remain cast in stone. Failure of the BDP to catch up to modern times and to read the public mood will undo both Masisi’s political capital and his party’s grip on power. A reform agenda for the BDP will work to strengthen our democracy.
We expect clear-cut accountability and transparency within government, but that culture must begin from the governing party. When citizens are finally given the chance to directly elect their own President, political parties must have done the due diligence within their structures first.
*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea.