Baghdad is the battleground. However this time around it is not the US invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein. This battle is in Letlhakeng West constituency where at least three political parties are expected to clash in a by-election.
And a council ward ironically nicknamed after the Iraqi city might turn out to be the toss up ward between the Botswana National Front (in tow is the Botswana Movement for Democracy and the Botswana People’s Party through the Umbrella for Democratic Change), Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and the Botswana Congress Party (BCP).
Many view Ditshegwane/Sesung ward, which is a BNF stronghold as the one which will decide the political battle. The ward is named ‘Baghdad’ because past elections were either won or lost there. 2, 262 voted in Ditshegwane/Sesung in the 2009 general elections, making it the biggest in terms of registered voters.
Both the BDP and the BNF command a respectable following in the area. For instance, council candidates for the party received well over 1000 votes each in the past election with the BNF getting 1129 while the ruling party got 1066. The constituency fell vacant following the untimely death of area MP, Maxwell Motowane late last year.
A quick gauge of the voters in some of the council wards that constitute the constituency reveals that it will turn out to be a two-horse race between the BDP and the BNF with the latter having a little edge. Competition will be fierce between the rival parties. Chances are that the BNF might win the constituency, which they lost in 2009.
Filbert Nagafela, who joins the race unopposed, will represent the BNF. Nagafela is a former MP in Letlhakeng West. He lost the last elections by a paltry 34 votes to Motowane. But the former legislator feels someone played underhand tactics. “I mean how can you have 200 spoilt votes,” he quips in an interview with the Botswana Guardian. He says if it was not for the spoilt votes he could have beaten Motowane in 2009.
The ruling party meanwhile, will have to decide on a representative between Ngaka Ngaka, Ellson Baeletse and Onneile Tsheboyagae. The trio has according to sources declared interest to stand for the primary elections. Sources in the constituency have told this publication that both Ngaka and Tsheboyame command a good following in the area.
Letlhakeng West is divided into seven council wards. The BDP won a large chunk of the wards in the past elections taking home five while the BNF won only two, but the latter’s sympathisers are not bothered by this damning statistics. “That constituency belongs to the BNF even God knows that,” declared Nagafela last Friday just hours before he knew that he was the only BNF member who has shown interest to contest. 3792 voters voted for Nagafela while Motowane won by 3826 votes.
The BNF says it is also confident in many of the council wards, mainly Ditshegwane/Sesung, Maboane, Salajwe and Takatokwane where the BNF lost by 30 votes. But in wards, which are the political strongholds of the BDP, winning over voters will be hard work. This includes Kaudwane/Sorilatholo. Nagafela hails from Ditshegwane.
He was once elected councillor for the area before winning the ticket to parliament. The current area councillor for Ditshegwane/Sesung Kgotlhang Tsabahule is awake to the fact that the BNF will need to double its efforts in the area.
A lot has happened since the 2009 elections and the councillor is aware that voting numbers dwindle in by-elections. “But we are going to maximise our efforts. We have already started to do our groundwork,” he said in an interview in Letlhakeng. One thing that might work for Nagafela is the fact that his opponents are said to be newcomers into politics.
The 21 square kilometre constituency is a mixed bag—abject poverty, lack of development and a failing education system. This is one area where patients have to be transported for over 200km from one clinic to the next. The nearest hospital is in Hukuntsi or Molepolole over 300km from Motokwe-service centres for the constituency.
Many in the area remain unemployed, only making ends meet by working for Ipelegeng while some live on government handouts. Also the area lacks a senior secondary school. Students who have completed junior school are either sent to Gantsi, Kang or Shoshong to complete their high school.
While the BDP members in the area feel the party has done enough to warrant a re-election those in the opposition say the party has failed to deliver. According to sources in the area voters expected a lot from the ruling party since the election of Motowane. “They made promises but never delivered on those promises,” said a BNF sympathiser.
But BDP councillor for Kaudwane/Sorilatlholo, Gabolemelwe Ramaeba argued that people in the area still trust the ruling party. “Since the last elections we have been receiving key members of the BNF, this gives us hope that we will win the by-election because it is clear people have lost faith in the opposition,” he said.
According to him the party is still strong in all the wards it won last time. Also he notes that the BDP is fielding youthful candidates and this will mean the youth will vote for whoever wins the primary elections. “The way we have treated this constituency I am sure people will vote for us,” he said adding that a number of youth have benefitted from government programmes designed for them.
He took a pot shot at Nagafela saying the latter opposes for the sake of doing so. The BDP will also rely on traditional voters like 80 year-old Lelope Leburu, who has been voting for the ruling party since the first elections in 1965. “I will not change my stance,” said Leburu in Motokwe although he could not find fault with the opposition parties.
But the BNF has its own share of traditional voters who according to Nagafela have been politically educated by the party founder Dr. Kenneth Koma. One thing that gives the BNF more confidence is the fact that the party now looks more united than in 2009.
For the BNF this is more than a by-election; it is all about reclaiming the glory and change the current setup in parliament. “We want to correct the mess which is in parliament. That is why we need to win this election,” said a BNF sympathiser. Botswana has a hung opposition and thus parliament has no Leader of Opposition. Should the BNF win the by-election the BMD-BNF coalition in parliament will have more MPs.
Sesung resident, Maitshwarelo Olatlhilwe says she will vote for Nagafela as she feels he is a good representative and orator. She seems to be fearful of President Ian Khama and believes that Khama will stop his goodwill programmes if he found out that people in the area have voted for the opposition.
Addressing the President by his first name, she pleaded with Botswana Guardian photographer not to take pictures of her lest ‘Ian’ finds out. Asked what’s wrong with the President seeing the pictures, she replied, “He will think we don’t like the BDP and cancel some of his programmes like Ipelegeng.”
But for Kegakgametse Mereetsile, 34, being a representative calls for more than being a good orator. “We need jobs,” he says before declaring that he will be voting for the BNF. Although political parties are expected to contest the by-election, it is widely seen as a two-horse race between the BNF and BDP as the BCP remains a dark horse in the race.
The BCP views itself as an underdog and only enters the race to establish a base in preparation for the 2014 general elections. The current official stance of the BCP is that they are still consulting and will decide whether to contest or not. However, sources have informed the Botswana Guardian that Thuto Thuto has been approached to stand for the parliamentary seat.
Some observers have noted that the BNF could lose the elections if indeed the BCP has made inroads in the area as it claimed sometimes last year. But some BNF members like councillor Tsabahule believes that the BNF will be buoyed by the fact that one of its partners-the BMD has gained members from the ruling party, a claim which has been denied by the latter.
“The BMD has not dented our membership, it’s only a few who joined the BMD since its formation,” said a BDP source.