The Botswana Democratic Party’s (BDP) current model of electing leadership, or even grooming future leaders and subsequently, how they govern the country without appropriate bottom-up checks and balances, is unsustainable and carries a risk for both the party and the country.
The BDP’s impetus for reform is propelled by two major reasons. The first is the decade of Ian Khama’s misrule. The second is as a result of the first: the reality the country finds itself in after years of cronyism, escalating corruption, secrecy in governance affairs, economic decline, unemployment, a weakened middle class and a severe policy paralysis.
The party faces a unique opportunity to introspect and ask itself difficult questions. For President Mokgweetsi Masisi, he must view the prospect of reform as a chance to save the country from a toxic political culture that derails the country from its true potential. Masisi is faced with the dilemma of choosing whether to build a unified effective BDP or a better country. Strong political parties are a gift for any democracy, and the country stands to benefit from a ruling party with unimpeachable integrity.
The transformation question equally speaks as much to the party as it does to the country. President Masisi must set out to overhaul systems within the party that make it conducive for patronage to thrive over meritocracy.
There are many impediments that stand in the way. Perhaps the bloated culture of political parties in general is one. The road ahead is bumpy, and while the goodwill President Masisi is garnering gives hope, he cannot do it alone. At the same time, he needs the support of the entire BDP. This will give him impetus to successfully combat the multiple ails plaguing the country.
So, in essence, a true reform agenda for the BDP must look, act and feel like a political party in the 21st century. It must be inclusive. The first must be clear-cut accountability and transparency within the party. This applies to how the party is structured, how it makes decisions, how it holds its leadership accountable, and lastly, the elephant in the room, how it raises capital. The BDP has an image problem that works counterintuitively against its ‘inclusivity’ tagline that it needs to do away with.
For years the BDP has been known as the party to join in order to guarantee prosperity in either business or professional circles.
If the party is honest with itself that ‘perception’ was/is true to some extent, for some people. That is how corruption and patronage were bred and the party must work harder to clean it up. With a problem of crippling inequality, the country would do well to build a culture of ‘prosperity for all’ in the literal sense. Presidential leadership has faced minimal if any scrutiny from the party’s central committee. The party has operated as if it accounts to the President and not the other way around.
The culture of open disagreement and debate has bred a culture of silence. Understandably so, the BDP does not have a pretty history of dealing with disagreements. Many who have openly questioned the Presidency have been thrown to the deep ends of their political careers and ambitions. Those at the helm of the current political dispensation must have a different view of debate and warm up to the idea that open disagreement and constructive debate must not equal malice.
Secondly, the party must write policy positions that actively influence government policy and move to rebuild and empower Parliament. BDP repeatedly leaves policy formulation to those it sends to Parliament and are often left disappointed at the end of each term.
Part of the reason governance and delivery have declined is due to the fact that the party is in power, but is not. Policy formulation and implementation have been on a free fall and all over the place with no centre of thought.
The party must strive to take back government with the public service and Members of Parliament all working from the same think tank. A declining government was enabled first by the declining ability of the BDP to hold those it sends to government accountable.
The party must be able to recall and reprimand its leadership, in the event of incompetence without thinking twice about it. For a country with a Constitution that grants the President too much power, Parliament must move to be an authority as a matter of urgency.
The other critical factor that has been a cancer to both the party and the country has been patronage and cronyism. The process of appointing political allies and friends who are not competent to lead key State institutions must stop. In its place must be a rigorous, transparent hiring process spearheaded by Parliament and open to the public.
Perhaps this feeds into direct presidential election as well. An expectation for a transparent hiring and appointment process must begin with giving citizens the right to elect their own President. If anything, the 2019 election was a referendum for the country’s appetite for parliamentary and constitutional reforms.
The BDP’s failure to give the citizens a comprehensive constitutional reform in this term will no doubt become one of the key litmus tests for their appetite to continue governing.
That the President will have to perform a number of balancing acts is not in question. The Presidency is the most political office in the land, and he will have to balance both political and State interests coupled with the redistributive pressure of citizens versus the repressive power and interests of the elite. Failure to achieve that balance, not only for the President but also for the party, will make regime change even more attractive for the next electoral cycle.
Half a century after Sir Seretse became Botswana’s first democratically elected president, the BDP’s popularity and hold on power has weakened. Now it must continue to cleanse the body politic of the contamination of the previous years. Masisi will need to use his electoral victory to turn the reform and ‘new dawn’ platform he has built over the past year into a springboard for economic growth and job creation.
Both are urgently needed. Otherwise, the lesson of the 2019 General Election is clear: the electorates are watching closely and they are prepared to speak up. In the event that the President cannot save both party and country at the same time, he must choose wisely. The country must come first. Political parties, after all, are merely transient institutions, but the country is eternal.
*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea