Good Khama, bad Khama?

What would it mean for the future of democracy and good governance in Botswana if the ruling party continues to lose votes?

It does not seem to have fully registered, at least outside Botswana, that President Ian Khama’s ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), which has been in power since independence in 1966, lost its majority of popular support last week.

Yes, of course the BDP was re-elected in the 24 October legislative elections. And as a result, Khama was also indirectly re-elected last Sunday by the new Parliament, to a second term as the country’s chief executive. But the BDP for the first time won less than 50% of the vote: 47% in fact, down from 52% in the last elections in 2009.

It was only because Botswana still operates a rather outdated first-past-the-post constituency voting system that the BDP was able to win this election for certain and stay in power for another five years.

The distortions of the winner-takes-all constituency system enabled it to translate 47% of the popular vote into 65% of the seats in Parliament; 37 seats out of 57 seats directly elected by the populace.

After adding the five extra seats indirectly elected by the Parliament – four specially elected members of Parliament (MPs) and the president – the BDP’s de facto support rose to over 67%, or 42 seats out of 62.

The specially elected MPs are in theory neutral, but in practice have always, at least in essence, supported the BDP. As the results indicated, Khama and the BDP faced their biggest challenge in this election. Though they didn’t quite form a totally united front, three opposition parties did join forces under the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), leaving just the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) out on its own.

Khama and the BDP faced their biggest challenge in this election

The UDC won 17 seats and the BCP just three. However the UDC won a more impressive 32% of the vote, the BCP 18%, whilst independent candidates got 3%.

This meant, of course, that if Botswana had had a proportional representation voting system, like South Africa, the two opposition parties would together have commanded 50% of the seats in Parliament, more than the BDP’s 47%. That could have left the independents as the kingmakers, depending, of course, on voting thresholds for the allocation of seats, and so on.

The Botswana government enjoys a stellar reputation internationally and comes out near the top on rankings of African governance, including, most recently, the Mo Ibrahim 2014 Index of African Governance where it ranked third, just behind Mauritius and Cape Verde and above South Africa. Yet the election results suggest that the people of Botswana don’t all quite share that global enthusiasm for their government. The main problem seems to be that the country’s considerable wealth is not being spread around very widely.

Botswana still earns most of its government revenue through its lucrative partnership – Debswana – with the South African diamond giant De Beers. That has helped to give the thinly populated country of just two million a higher per capita gross domestic product (GDP) – US$14 000 per annum in purchasing power parity terms – than its much larger neighbour, South Africa. But not enough of the money has trickled down to ordinary Batswana.

The BDP government is, of course, aware that it cannot forever rely so heavily on diamonds – which directly account for about 85% of export revenue and around 35% of GDP.

Botswana has, to its credit, largely escaped the resource curse that has ruined so many other African countries. It has managed its diamonds well, and Khama improved this performance by establishing a diamond-sorting and sales facility in Botswana to reap some of the secondary benefits from the gems also. Diamond revenue finances comparatively generous social welfare.

But, as Brenthurst Director, Greg Mills, points out in his book Why States Recover, Botswana has so far failed to make the breakthrough to the next level of development by diversifying its economy. Not for want of trying. The government had made several direct interventions in the economy, some of which he himself was involved in – such as offering low-interest loans to would-be entrepreneurs.

None of these have really helped and Mills concludes that Botswana might do better by focusing its attentions more broadly, on lowering taxes and generally creating a better business environment than that of neighbouring South Africa to attract investment.

Botswana has, to its credit, largely escaped the resource curse

Last week’s election results suggests that the BDP might face defeat in the next elections in 2019 unless it does something to remedy this problem. And that in turn raises the question of how the BDP would react to such a defeat if it happened.

Would Africa’s exemplary democracy behave as exemplary democracies everywhere ought to behave and relinquish power graciously? Or would it take a leaf from the book of Zimbabwe, where the threat of imminent political defeat triggered an undemocratic response from President Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF to ensure they remained in power at all costs?

Perhaps that is a terribly unfair question. Khama, after all, has been the one southern African leader bold enough to openly criticise Mugabe’s undemocratic behaviour. Yet he himself has betrayed some rather worrying authoritarian and dynastic tendencies. A Sandhurst-trained military officer, Khama is rather intolerant of criticism, particularly from the media. Last month he had newspaper editor Outsa Mokone arrested for publishing a report, which Khama has strongly denied, that he had been involved in an unreported motor vehicle accident.

His government’s eviction of the Basarwa or Bushmen people from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve has also been criticised as high-handed and even illegal by the activist NGO Survival International. Khama defended it to The Guardian last week by saying the Basarwa had been acceptable in the reserve as long as they used only their traditional weapons and hunting methods, but not when they began to threaten the wildlife by upgrading to horses and guns.

But the paper also observed that he coldly dismissed the Basarwa as living ‘a very extinct… very backward form of life,’ which had to be modernised.

This week Khama raised eyebrows when his attorney-general asked the High Court to overturn a decision by political parties in Parliament – including the ruling BDP – to change the rules so they could elect a vice president by secret ballot, rather than the usual public vote by show of hands.

Observers believe Khama challenged Parliament because he intends to nominate his not very popular younger brother, Tshekedi – now a cabinet minister – for the post of vice president. Khama clearly suspects that not even all the MPs of his own party will confirm his choice, if they can defy him secretly.

Making his brother vice president would presumably set him up for succession when Khama must, constitutionally, stand down in 2019. Is Khama – himself the son of Botswana’s founding President Seretse Khama – intending to continue a Khama dynasty even against the wishes of his own party?

If so, what does that say about democracy and good governance?

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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