Direct election of President: Wrong prescription

Batswana go to the polls this October
Batswana go to the polls this October

Parliament has, through the adopted motion by Member of Parliament, Polson Majaga, triggered a debate on the direct election of the President of the Republic of Botswana. It is not a new notion; it must be said.

The opposition has always had it among its electoral reform requisitions, which it believes would improve the nation’s democracy outlook. The ruling BDP on the other hand, only helped to pass the motion, not out of any known noble principle, but to illuminate its current egoistic factional standoff.

Although the call for direct election predates the constitutional amendment enabling automatic succession and the sequential evoking of executive powers by the immediate past president, it is the latter two that actually irked the conscience of many people.  The appreciation of the need to do something about the Constitution was therefore inflated and hence the likely risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The common reason given by the direct election proponents is that it enhances democracy. It offers people the opportunity to directly cast a vote for their candidate. The usual remarks associated with this argument are that with so much power that the Constitution bestows on the President of Botswana, one would think the President was directly elected. This argument invariably acknowledges and laments the excessive presidential powers that currently obtain, but inadvertently and paradoxically seek direct public validation as a solution. It is deserved if s/he tramples on us because we directly voted for him, the argument implies.

Election violence in Africa is directly linked to direct election of presidents. Few names can be thrown around without much contestation; your Zimbabwe, Kenya and Madagascar have passed through similar election furnace.

Some might argue that it is not elections per se, that split nations, but a culmination of various factors.

However, while they remain an effective way of detaching man from jungle disposition, elections, let alone direct elections of a president, are everything disruptive; they provide a fertile ground for manifestation of all kinds of prejudices. Elections are inherently divisive; all of a sudden the tribe of a neighbour becomes important; the genders, the colour of skin are instantly floodlit. Direct elections of a president, with its quasi-innocuous trappings, is nothing but a sugary beverage served a diabetic person; that sweet but terminal effervescing.

An electoral system that obtains in Botswana is a First Past the Post system (FPTP), a method that basically de-citizens the marginalised. Prior to the elections, each participating party is required to nominate its presidential candidate, backed by a minimum of 1,000 supporters in the case of Botswana. It has proven to alleviate regional or tribal perceptions in electoral decisions. The tribal considerations are isolated to a ward and constituency level, becoming even less viable at the latter, especially in urban cosmopolitan areas. This feat cannot be undervalued.

The height of agitation in the current BDP presidential campaign, ever since Pelonomi Venson–Moitoi declared interest to challenge the incumbent, illustrates the emotional stakes invested in a competition pitting two bulls against each other in either direct or indirect elections. Already the tribalism card and xenophobic undertones are hurled about in fast and fury abandon, while genderism, ageism and hate speech sentiments are spewed with the fervour of gangsterism.  Elevated to a national arena the outbursts as well as corresponding consequences would quadruple.

Separation of Power

Demarcation of powers, is another factor, lack of which is cited by proponents of the DE as a weakness of the IE method. The argument is that indirect election erases lines between arms of government, especially the executive and the legislature. While this could be true for Botswana, it does not necessarily make the problem an offspring of the IE system. Buttressing this assertion, South Africa, India, USA and Germany have different indirect methods under different shades of proportional representation systems. These countries have similar, probably not identical, systems to Botswana, although with improved separation of powers. It is therefore untrue that IE necessarily frustrates separation of powers but the problem is rather the rigidity of Botswana to improve or laundry its processes. For instance, there could be legal limits protecting parameters between the arms of government to ensure the legislative process is not distorted.

The other end of the current discussion is that there be a separate and externally drawn executive with the assumption that this shall be the discretion of the directly elected president. Once again the power of the individual against that of a collective, in this case that of Parliament, is amplified in this argument.

This is where the irony lies; while the motivation for direct election largely emanates from giving people the opportunity to directly choose their president in the understanding that s/he would be accounting to them, the opposite is true, as in this case, the individual is given the powers to select the executive, not from among those elected by the people, but from possibly uninterested individuals, whose major quality could only be loyalty to the person of the president.

As a characteristic common but not exclusive to the presidential system, direct election of the president has the propensity to elevate individualism over a collective and that cannot be the democracy that people envisage.


South Africa uses a proportional party listing representative system. Political parties draw their lists headed by their presidential nominees ahead of national elections, knowing very well that a party with a higher popular vote takes the government and the presidency. Just like the Botswana case, the presidential nominees are the face of the election campaign, but not subjected to direct national polls. South Africa has a relatively functional democracy, with citizens enjoying the many democratic institutions available. Emerging from a violent past, South Africans are known to be prone to violence in their protests, lately even in Parliament. They have cut short terms of their presidents, at least twice since their independence in 1994 – probably, a positive thing. The question is, can the country survive a chaotic direct election method? Possibly yes, but the risks are too gruesome to fathom.

The United States of America (USA) is a federation of several states, similar to Germany. The former has a component of a popular vote, but which does not conclude the presidential elections. The president is elected through what they call electoral colleges, which, like it happened with the election of President Donald Trump, could vote parallel to the popular vote. Some see this as anathema to democracy as it defies the majority rule logic, but its counterpart is neither a panacea. In fact, the American system has taken aboard the interest of the minorities, as in numbers and the marginalised as in populations. In a pure direct election, voters from big states would sway the scale towards their end, literally deciding for the whole nation, who the president should be.

India, on the other hand, has a president elected from none of the parties contesting. Using a system resembling a hybrid of America’s electoral college and Botswana’s national assembly, the president has no interest in the contesting parties. The elected person enjoys the aura similar to that of a monarch, drawing respect from all corners, the difference being, the Prime Minister handles government duties. This is an improvement of an indirect system perhaps suitable for a large nation in the mould of India.

Zimbabwe and Kenya are two countries that have in recent years overhauled their constitutions. This was meant to, among other factors, curb the violence that ensued at every election. To a large extent they succeeded with a number of reforms except with the direct election of the President, an event that continues to incite bloody aftermath in both countries.  

The drivers of the DE argument have therefore misdiagnosed the infirmity in Botswana, which has less to do with the process of appointing the president; but rather the powers that are conferred the position without corresponding and codified checks and balances. People have been hyped into thinking they will magically make some positive difference by merely participating in the direct election of the president, but this is just cosmetic.

The country would enmesh itself in collective foolishness to adopt a method that has left a trail of chaotic aftershocks in some African states.  The electoral system in Botswana surely needs some reforms, but direct election of the president does not have to be among them.

*Thapelo Ndlovu is a convenor at CommunityFiles

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