Scary strength of Botswana's ruling party

Three years ago, political pundits were confidently penning the ruling Botswana Democratic Party’s obituary. Having ruled Botswana since 1965, the BDP was undergoing a major split – a split that was so serious and so messy that many thought it would be close to impossible for the party to regroup, let alone win the 2014 general elections.

May 5th, 2013

Three years ago, political pundits were confidently penning the ruling Botswana Democratic Party’s obituary. Having ruled Botswana since 1965, the BDP was undergoing a major split – a split that was so serious and so messy that many thought it would be close to impossible for the party to regroup, let alone win the 2014 general elections.

But while this may be hard to swallow for many, the cold facts are that the ruling party has defied those who predicted its death – and regrouped, reorganised and reenergized its base. Indeed, the party is looking so strong that it seems likely to easily and convincingly win the 2014 general elections. So how has President Ian Khama’s party managed to rise so quickly from the ashes of its split?

BMD - failed project

When the BDP split in 2010, influential former members formed the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD). Decrying the lack of intra-party democracy within the BDP, the defectors blamed President Ian Khama for ruling the party with an iron fist. They labelled him a ruthless dictator who had little regard for dissenting views. On the other hand, Khama called his former comrades undisciplined members whose sole purpose was to destabilise the party.

Instantaneously, BMD became the talk of the town. Presenting itself as the only credible alternative to the BDP, the party was swiftly joined not only by BDP members but also by members of other political parties. At one point, the party seemed to represent a genuine threat to the continued existence of the other opposition parties. Thousands attended its rallies; many swore allegiance to the party. But its stunning rise was short lived.

A year after it was formed some of the BMD’s founding members re-joined the ruling party, including MPs. In 2012, the party’s vice president became the most senior member of the party to re-join his former party. There has been talk about President Khama luring these defectors back to his party with promise of cash, government tenders and ministerial positions, although the ruling party has dismissed these allegations as entirely false. Whatever the reasons for their return to the BDP fold, there is no doubt that their defection has robbed the BMD of many of its senior figures and of its chances of really taking on the ruling party.

The public service strike

When hundreds of public service workers embarked on a two-month long strike in 2011 over wages, it was clear that the workers were fed up with both the government in general and President Khama in particular. During their rallies the workers shouted anti-government and anti–Khama slogans. The public service workers were demanding a 16 percent salary hike, but the government refused adding that the country was still recovering from the economic downturn. Many felt that the government would be badly damaged by the bitter strike and might have to cave in to the workers’ demands but after protracted negotiations it was Khama and his ministers who won the day – with the battered unions settling for a paltry 3 percent rise.

Failed opposition unity

After the formation of the BMD, opposition parties – which had failed to work together in earlier years – finally decided to hold joint meetings to discuss the creation of a unified opposition. The parties included the BMD, Botswana National Front (BNF), Botswana Congress Party (BCP) and Botswana Peoples Party (BPP). For the first time in many years, proponents of opposition unity were buoyant, believing that the parties would finally form a formidable, unified organisation that would rival the ruling BDP at the ballot box.

The labour unions announced that they would support the joint opposition effort. The mood in the country was for ‘change’. The ruling party was starting to panic.

And then the talks collapsed.

The parties failed to agree on the contentious issue of the allocation of constituencies. The BMD, BNF and BPP have since formed and registered a joint party, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC). However, without the BCP, which is a major political player in the country, it is impossible to see the UDC being a threat to the ruling party. And the same goes for the BCP, which alone poses no danger to the national hegemony of the ruling party.

Once again, the opposition’s inability to all work together to unseat the BDP has left the ruling party in an untouchable position. And knowing this, the BDP has been able to recruit a host of opposition members in recent months, all of whom know where the power in Botswana lies – and will continue to lie for the foreseeable future.

The business community

For many years, most businesspeople have only donated money to the ruling party. Few have donated to the opposition. In a country where political parties are not funded by the government and where there are no laws regulating private funding, this financial support from the business community will always give the ruling party a major advantage. And the BDP has certainly used its advantage to the full – during one fundraising dinner last year, the party raised as much as 1 million Pula. It is something opposition parties can only dream of (and meanwhile have nightmares about).

Khama the populist

President Khama is not your ordinary president; he has taken populism to another level and this has made him more popular than any other recent president. Opposition leaders may not like the sound of this but Khama is far more popular than them.

When he took over as president, Khama introduced dozens of populist programmes aimed at improving the lives of the poor. One of the most popular is Ipelegeng, which offers short term employment and relief to thousands of people while they contribute to essential development projects The unemployed are paid as little as P400 a month, but they are also provided with free daily meals by the government. According to the latest figures, 200,000 people had enrolled in the programme – an astonishing 10 percent of the population.

Other programmes that are directly funded by the government include back yard gardening, constituency leagues, and the national graduate internship programme amongst others. Furthermore, Khama has endeared himself to the people through his streets walkabouts and visits to remote areas. He also has firm control of the country’s only national broadcaster, Botswana Television and his walkabouts, visits and donations to the poor are broadcast daily – swelling his popularity and reinforcing the nationwide support for the ruling party.

With all these strengths, it is now hard to see any obstacles to the party’s continued electoral success in 2014. But yet another landslide victory and an even stronger BDP is a cause for real concern. President Khama has already been accused of authoritarian tendencies and an all-powerful party could begin to push Botswana off the path towards greater openness and transparency. Already the party has rejected progressive democratic reforms such as the declaration of assets and liabilities and access to information laws amongst others. And recently the BDP-dominated parliament passed a draconian and discredited health bill into law.

It is always dangerous for a party to stay in power for too long. Democracies work because political power changes hands – or at least because there is a genuine chance that it could. But power has never changed hands in Botswana since 1965. And it will not in 2014.


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