Some constitutional, democratic and other lessons of 2019

President Masisi at a BDP rally PIC. PHATSIMO KAPENG
President Masisi at a BDP rally PIC. PHATSIMO KAPENG

Politics this year has been notoriously brutal, filled with wildly ambitious characters and individuals jockeying for influence in Botswana's competitive political space. We learnt that money and resources can go a long way and can make all the difference, and nobody is safe, politically speaking.

That wasn’t the most important lesson of the year. As 2019 winds down; it also marks the end of a tumultuous decade. It is worth reflecting and highlighting the ‘pop’ moments that qualify as lessons for the country.

The year all around has been marked significantly by chaos, strong voices, shocking and equally proud moments. For the country, the anxiety or relief or wonder that came with the first post-Khama administration era was enough to send the country into a ‘holy cow’ moment.

The first lesson that stands out is the renewed urge for constitutional reform in the interests of Presidential elections, a stronger Parliament and political party funding. With regards to the political space and elections, party funding and the impetus for it thereof, presents a double conundrum. The lack of party funding has proved to expose our politics to unknown, possibly, outside financiers with quid-pro-quo investment agendas.

The presence of it would bring more good for democracy than its detractors argue. It would raise the bar for which we hold political parties and leadership accountable and it would, in essence, increase competition by crippling, to some extent the unfair advantage that incumbency gives to the ruling party. 

Arguments for the use of public funds are easily fixed with an appropriate legislation package that includes accountability and transparency mechanisms. The main takeaway from this? The country can no longer afford to have financially struggling political parties resorting to lobbyists, interest groups or campaign donors and businessmen.

The election cycle also brought the first Presidential debate that was attended by a sitting President and all the other opposition party presidents. The takeaways from this heated exchange alone shed light on questions and expectations for presidential leadership. 

Secondly, 2019 was special in that the country experienced its first encounter with a “Presidential feud” that spilled over into the public space and subsequently, the elections and the general party politik. Ian Khama’s ‘influence’ was the subject of controversy during the election and was projected by pundits to be the deciding factor in the Central District.

Former president Khama; a man who will definitely go down in history as one of the most polarising political figures, certainly took away the rigidity with which Botswana’s political discourse, (especially within the BDP), had been known for.

This presents key constitutional and political lessons for the country: first, that Dikgosi should have never been allowed into politics; second, that Presidential powers ought to be sincerely limited as a matter of urgency in exchange for more Parliamentary powers and independence.

Overall, that Khama and President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s sour personal relationship spilled over into public institutions should be a lesson on the need for stronger institutions, independent of individuals and the executive. The office of the Presidency must remain an institution with unimpeachable integrity, and those who occupy it must subscribe to that standard even in their post-presidential lives.

The third and equally important take away from 2019, was the opposition’s powerful election campaign (minus the controversies and tactical blunders) and their potential to drive a paradigm shifting narrative. The Opposition bench must be applauded for the competitive edge they brought to the country’s political landscape. Their relatively well-crafted manifestos, economic and jobs rationale proved they could take any debate and run with it successfully.

In a broader sense, the post-election petitions for the alleged irregularities are a testament to the power of a constitutional democracy and the freedom to approach the courts for legal redress.

This is a feat that must not be taken lightly; even in the face of declining public institutions, public service delivery and shaky leadership, Botswana’s judicial system still passes the basic litmus tests for integrity and legitimacy. In addition, the Mmegi application to live stream the election petitions still bears testament to this and presents a convincing narrative of how much public interest should weigh into issues that affect our democracy.

The issue of corruption unfortunately speaks more to public institutions tasked with the responsibility to fight and prosecute abuse of power. Although the country witnessed several key arrests of individuals linked to corruption, the follow up and outcomes from the prosecutions left a lot to be desired. Going forward, perhaps the public must demand more from corruption busting agencies and on the general leadership front. 

Political parties vying for office also had very few women contesting under their banners. The image was a worrying reflection, lacking an accurate representation of Botswana and the world today. As the country moves forward, voters and political parties must take a hard look at themselves and wonder what this means and how they can demand better representation.

A 30,000-foot aerial view of the country during the year compels two points to note: first, the power of our courts to decisively sweep in and drive the transformational change we need when the other two arms of government fail to do so.

The historic decriminalisation of homosexuality is a case in point. Secondly, we are reminded over and over again when the right people make it to Parliament (Ndaba Gaolathe, Bogolo Kenewendo, and newly elected Thapelo Letsholo, etc) that, Parliament can be a critical instrument to represent the needs and desires of the people.

At the intersection of both arms of government is the executive, which, although has been slow to act stands between some much needed institutional and structural change. Action on all fronts will give us something to look forward to in 2020.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea

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