Botswana’s opposition bloc was thrown into a tight spot when its key leaders from the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) and the Alliance for Progressives lost their constituency seats in the 2019 General Election.
Now faced with the challenge of governing from their side of the aisle, opposition parties must recalibrate, move forward and take their role seriously as legislators.
Without a vibrant multiparty democracy with a strong opposition, the potential geopolitical and economic implications for the country are worrying. Botswana, governed since 1966 by the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) with an absolute majority, cannot afford an implosion and disorganisation of its political opposition, which has been the most prominent check (especially the last few years) on the BDP’s power.
Indeed, the opposition has waged warfare in courts, media and Parliament to bring much-needed attention to the plight of the country’s struggles for effective governance. They have used Parliament itself to hold the BDP-led government constitutionally and politically accountable through brilliant oversight work within various Parliamentary committees, albeit without much impact to institutionally flawed organisations that should, as a matter of morality, be publicly held accountable.
Duma Boko and Ndaba Gaolathe’s losses dealt a great blow to the opposition bloc. Although this brings forth a great debate on the opportunity for the parties to start thinking about succession plans, the leaders carried their parties to crucial points in their political careers. At the same time, Boko’s loss and Dumelang Saleshando’s ascension to the Leader of Opposition (LOO) role became a blessing in disguise.
Dumelang is a sharp-shooting legislator with tonnes of legislative experience who perfectly makes up for Duma’s shortfalls. But the rhetorical highlights of Duma and Ndaba’s political careers have been their on-point diagnosis of the BDP regime and its weaknesses in governing a country that holds incredible potential to become a high-income economy. Both have delivered consistent and aptly written speeches on the floor of Parliament.
But all hasn’t been golden with opposition parties and their leaders. Their greatest flaws and inefficiencies have shown the most even at the lowest points of the ruling party when the BDP had absolutely no reason to be voted back into power. The nation had passed their own judgement on the leaders.
Duma was often brash, unrelatable. In the case of Ndaba, he is one of the nicest human beings in Botswana politics and one feels horrible for pointing out his political weaknesses, but they are real weaknesses, and there were several. Opposition politics will need someone who is not only a nice guy, but one who can also be an effective party leader.
The 2019 vote was a crucial electoral upset for the opposition, especially in predominantly opposition strongholds. More convincing electoral success, especially for its party Presidents and key Members of Parliament would have enabled the parties to argue in the 2024 election campaign that it had the capability to be trusted with national government. That opportunity is probably now ruined. Add to that, the horrible optics of Boko’s deafening silence in the period immediately after the elections. But all the good stuff stands to be regained if Saleshando can deliver countless wins in his role as LOO.
The task for the opposition that will determine future prospects for electoral victory will not only be confined to legislative success, but consistent engagement in the nationwide constituencies they contested. The problem with political parties has always been their tendency to retract to their ivory towers after elections. There are many fixes and checks that the opposition must subject themselves to, to regain the public’s trust and become irresistible alternatives to BDP’s sustained rule.
One thing for sure is their allegations that the 2019 vote was rigged. As defenders and vanguards of this democracy of ours, we must defend their right to petition the electoral outcome with our lives, given that they have ample evidence to prove their allegations. In the same breath, opposition parties must not take advantage of this platform to cry foul even when they themselves are usefully inefficient at their jobs.
The first order of business must be to get Boko to stop holding press conferences primarily to the gallery of South African media. The opposition block must always remember that their key constituents are Batswana and if any case has to be made about Batswana’s elections and electoral processes, and then it has to be made to them and for them. This isn’t to say their concerns about Botswana media houses are invalid or illegitimate.
Even if that was the case, if we have learnt anything from the just-ended electoral cycle, it is the power of social media; a medium in which the UDC itself has excelled at and demonstrated their organisation and appetite for governance. The opposition must continue to engage citizens in their own country about matters that concern them on alternative platforms.
The second issue is for opposition parties to stop blaming voters for their electoral woes with repeated tags of ‘false consciousness’. It is important to state the obvious about opposition parties’ behaviour that undermines their prospects. Their 2019 election results can only be reversed if the opposition is brutally honest in its diagnosis of what went wrong. It came back to Parliament with one seat less from the previous Parliament. There is a lot of work to be done in terms of organisation and maintaining stability within opposition ranks, and substantively dealing with the divisive factions that lead to countless break ups and court battles. In order to bridge the very huge gap between Parliament and citizens, opposition must follow up on their promise to find a way to broadcast their Parliamentary deliberations.
A democratic Botswana has the best odds of surviving and progressing if the culture of competitive and vibrant opposition politics has been securely engraved into our society. This, in turn, requires citizens and voters to have a variety of political parties to choose from, not just as a matter of merely choosing, but as genuinely viable alternatives.
The governing BDP has effectively become a dominating monopoly player in Botswana’s democracy despite near-destructive levels of corruption and public service inefficiencies, extremely high levels of unemployment, and unprecedented levels of poverty and inequality that show no signs of abating. There’s a stronger case for the opposition to get their act together in the interest of a better Botswana. In the next five years, in order to see if Masisi’s new dawn holds any water or was merely an illusion, we will need opposition parties at the forefront, leading the way with credible leadership.
*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea.