Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
Botswana is often referred to as one of the few shining examples of democracy in Africa. But scratch the surface and things are sometimes less than shiny – such as discovering that there is no public funding for political parties, which gives the ruling party a huge (and perhaps unbeatable) advantage.
Indeed, a recent study by the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa concluded that, “The lack of state funding of political parties [in Botswana] has created an uneven political playing field for aspiring candidates, with a particularly negative impact on opposition parties.”
But for decades now, the government has refused to fund political parties arguing that it has other serious and pressing commitments to focus on. Recently when addressing a Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) fundraising dinner, where the only party to have ever ruled the country raked in millions of pula, the outgoing vice president Mompati Merafhe dismissed the idea of funding parties from the state’s coffers as a ‘non-‘starter adding that the parties have a responsibility to raise their own funds.
Merafhe said that if the ruling party can raise money for its campaigns then the opposition should do likewise. It is a sentiment that is shared by many in the ruling party, who are totally against the idea that many feel enhances democracy and has been adopted in many countries around the world.
But it is unsurprising that few in the BDP want to provide state funding to all parties. The current system is heavily weighted in their favour since the BDP can rely on funds from a number of sources, including – crucially – the country’s well-heeled business community, while the opposition largely depend on small donations from members and well-wishers.
The result – since 1965 the opposition has not been able to mount well-financed electoral campaigns and so has never genuinely been able to challenge the BDP.
So who does fund the BDP? The fact is that no one really knows. Rumours abound that the party is financed by a who’s who of the Botswana business world – as well as foreign companies. But in a country where there are no laws or regulations regulating party funding and expenditure, there is no accurate information.
All we know is that the BDP has benefited from companies in the past.
Two years ago, local newspapers were awash with reports on how De Beers secretly bankrolled BDP and how the mining giant rescued Sir Ketumile Masire’s (private) companies from the jaws of bankruptcy when he was President in the 1990s and the 1980s. The allegations were never disputed by the company.
Many people suspect that the party has dozens of other secret donors both in Botswana and outside.
But it’s not all secret. Businessmen and women have not shied away from openly donating funds to the party, while Chinese doing business in the country have also made contributions to the party in recent years. And late last year, the BDP raised close to one million pula during the party’s annual conference – something that the opposition can only dream of.
It is also an open secret that during elections, the BDP uses it financial muscle to lure voters by distributing food parcels and cash. This has worked for the party for many years now. The incumbency factor also seems to work for the ruling party, during the election years, the president, and his cabinet ministers often use state resources to travel around the country.
So how do opposition parties make their money? The majority of the funds come through donations from members and monthly contributions by their elected officials such as councillors and Members of Parliament. Their fundraising activities are not nearly as effective as those of the ruling party – largely because the business community shuns the opposition.
Donations buy influence and what is the point in businesses spending money on parties that are always in opposition. But how can they ever gain power without extra funds? It is a vicious circle.
The opposition is hamstrung by its lack of funds. Opposition volunteers are often not given any form of allowance or incentive as it is the case with the BDP, while opposition parties always find it difficult to compete in every part of the country. More often than not they fail to field candidates in some constituencies due to lack of resources.
In the 2009 general elections, the BDP was the only party that managed to field candidates in all the constituencies around the country.
Two of the main opposition parties are receiving technical support from British political parties. For more than 10 years now, Britain’s Labour party has been providing the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) with technical support in form of training workshops for the party leaders and the Liberal Democrats recently started a similar relationship with Botswana Movement for Democracy. These are helpful but nowhere near enough to bridge the resource gap with the BDP.
However, slowly but surely, influential figures are climbing onto the state funding bandwagon.
When addressing a BCP conference recently the former chairperson of Independent Electoral Commission, retired Judge John Mosojane summed up the need for party funding in these few words, “the reason for state funding of political parties is a simple one: It is all in the interest of democracy and fair play in the competition for political power.”
And in recent months, former presidents Festus Mogae and Sir Ketumile Masire – both of whom shunned the idea when they were in office – have come out in support of state funding of political parties.
It remains to be seen whether their new views on the matter will influence the party’s current leadership under president Ian Khama.ShareThis