Contrary to a poll on how the public would vote on the duration of the State of Emergency MmegiOnline created recently, the ruling President Mokgweetsi Masisi-led Botswana Democratic Party still prevailed following heated debates over the last week. Mmegi Staffer, LEBOGANG MOSIKARE finds out whether politicians care for their electorate or place the interests of their party and its leader before the will of the people
FRANCISTOWN: A recent Mmegi Facebook poll involving over 27,000 participants found out that 83% of the people wanted President Mokgweetsi Masisi to enact the State of Emergency (SoE) for at 28 days. This majority marginally outvoted the 17% of people that wanted the SoE to last for six months as proposed by Masisi in a bid to fight the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
When Parliament recently endorsed the six-month period for the SoE in order to control the spread of the coronavirus, the decision became a bitter pill to swallow to some sections of the country.
Despite a spirited attempt by the Leader of the Opposition (LoO), Dumelang Saleshando, who was banking on the support of all members of the opposition bloc in Parliament, it was clear to all and sundry that Saleshando and company were fighting a losing battle.
In other words, the horses had already bolted. This is so because the annals of Botswana’s political history are replete with examples of how BDP Members of Parliament (MP) always toe the party line and rally behind their leaders in Parliament in order to torpedo the plans of the opposition.
The opposition’s defeat was inevitable because prior to the special sitting of Parliament, the BDP held a caucus – an instructive platform that determines how their MPs should vote.
Therefore, as always, it came as no surprise that the opposition bloc in Parly lost a political battle even before it started.
Although most Batswana are feeling the pinch of the lockdown, which was extended by a further seven days and would also have to inevitably live with the impending SoE for six months, some of them told MmegiOnline that they would still continue to vote for the BDP in 2024 and beyond.
MmegiOnline discovered this situation after carrying out a random survey on how people would vote on the then proposed SoE in Area W (Itekeng Ward) following its enactment.
Some of the residents interviewed by MmegiOnline pledged their undying loyalty to the BDP while they did not dispute that the BDP sometimes takes decisions that they do not necessarily like and support.
They added that it is a fact that they feel hard done by the BDP and were in support of proposal put forward by opposition.
However, the BDP diehards reiterated that their loyalty to the party cannot be swayed by natural disasters like coronavirus, which come and go and are not a creation of the BDP.
An expert of politics from the University of Botswana (UB), Kebapetse Lotshwao, said that it was obvious that the BDP MPs were always going to rally behind what their leader wanted despite how coronavirus will affect the daily lives of their voters.
He said there are a lot of examples all over the world where partisanship and the loyalty of MPs to their leaders and parties take precedence over the will of constituents who brought them to Parliament more than anything else.
The UB don acceded that it may happen on rare occasions that some MPs may disregard toeing the party line, but in the case of the BDP it was always a given that all BDP MPs were going to rally behind their leader despite the consequences of the SoE to the voters.
Lotshwao, a UB senior lecturer in politics, buttressed the fact that Masisi was always going to get whatever he wanted –whether in an emergency situation such as coronavirus or not –because those who depart from the party line may be held accountable by the party.
In other words, Lotshwao explained that those who openly act like they are not in support of the position adopted by the party risked facing disciplinary hearings.
He said: “It was obvious that even the backbenchers were always going to support what their leader wanted. The backbenchers are very much aware that if they don’t toe the party line, they damage their prospects of being appointed to Cabinet”.
However, the UB pundit has some qualms about MPs who are totally submissive to their leader and the party.
He said that partisanship weakens accountability because ruling party MPs may take decisions that are not justified and are taken to solely massage the ego of their leader without looking at the consequences on their voters thereof just because the opposition has a minority of MPs in Parliament.
Another UB political science lecturer, Leornard Sesa, said that there was nothing wrong with BDP MPs endorsing the SoE to take six months because they were responding to a deadly natural disaster (coronavirus).
The urgency to combat (COVID-19), Sesa elucidated, overrides anything else including the interests of the constituents of the MPs.
He said that the MPs were informed about the special sitting of Parliament on short notice while they were still on their vacation and did not have enough time to solicit ideas from their voters about the call at hand.
Therefore, Sesa said the MPs had a few days to research about coronavirus and as such it was inevitable that BDP MPs were going to abide by what was said at their party caucus.
Although it should be noted that the results of the Mmegi opinion poll were published a day after the special sitting of Parliament was convened and therefore may have made little or no effect on how BDP MPs were going to vote, especially given the fact that the BDP had prior to that held a caucus, some political analysts are of the view that legislators rarely heed to the will of their voters no matter what.
According a research paper by Erik Kojola, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Texas Christian University in the US, legislators do not always respond to public opinion or the will of their voters.
Kojola nevertheless says that popular opinion may play a larger role in shaping the positions of elected officials when there are clear signs of a major shift about what the public strongly feel about one side of an issue.
Kojola just like Lotshwao and Sesa is also of the view that among various reasons, legislators are influenced by party platforms such as caucuses, which may at times not be in sync with what is happening on the ground, the will of the voters and reality.
Political science professors, Ethan Porter from George Washington University, and Joshua Kalla of Yale University in the US, support the trio’s assertions.
The duo carried out a study about whether politicians under any circumstances actually care about the opinion of the public and found out that 35% of the time, legislators vote against the will of their constituents even if they were given information regarding the views of voters.