The 2014 combined legislative and local government elections have come and gone. In terms of the legislative outcome, it was a mixed bag. The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), an opposition collective, increased its parliamentary seats two and a half-fold (from seven to 17), garnering close to a third of the popular vote (30%) in the process - a remarkable achievement for a political formation established on the eve of the elections. On the other hand, it was not a good election for the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) and the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).
The BCP lost 60% of its parliamentary seats (five out of eight), including that of its president. However, to its credit, the party managed to hold on to its popular vote albeit having marginally decreased by 1% to 20.4%. Incidentally, under a proportional representation system the party’s share of the vote would translate into 11 parliamentary seats and the UDC would still have the same number of parliamentary seats it obtained at the elections.
As a party in power, the election results were nothing less than seismic for the BDP. In terms of parliamentary seats, it garnered 65% of the contested seats, the lowest share of seats the party has ever attained. It shed 14% of its share of seats it acquired in 2009 (79%) to the opposition. It will therefore not be such a difficult task for the opposition to slice off a further 16% from the current 65% share of seats at the next elections and attain state power. Furthermore, given the volatility of the BDP’s share of seats over the years (it plunged 23% at the 1994 general elections), a 65% share is very precarious.
Most disturbing for the ruling party, however, is its share of the popular vote, which, for the first time in its existence, dipped below 50% to 46.5%. This does not however invalidate the party’s victory nor does it make the BDP government any less legitimate. Nonetheless, the level of the party’s popular vote does not bode well for its future for two reasons. Firstly, the opposition will capitalise on this to create doubt in the minds of a largely gullible electorate about the legitimacy of the BDP government on the basis that it received a mandate from a minority. And any misstep by the government will be seized upon as proof that it is illegitimate; that it cannot be entrusted with the nation’s welfare, and should therefore be voted out in 2019. Secondly, sooner rather than later a tipping point will be reached whereby the first-past-the-post electoral model will cease to favour the BDP.
At this point, the decreasing popular vote will no longer be able to deliver the required number of parliamentary seats for the BDP to remain in power, at least on its own. In the past, after experiencing losses, the BDP would bounce back and increase both its share of parliamentary seats and popular vote, but this was during an era when its political opponents did it favours by splitting opposition votes. Unfortunately for the party, that era has now come to end. The fact that the UDC collective has mutated into a seemingly unstoppable political force, coupled with the expectation that, despite public pronouncements to the contrary by its activists, the BCP will join the UDC in preparation for the 2019 general elections, presents a somewhat hopeless scenario for the BDP going forward. The odds will certainly be heavily stacked against the ruling party and chances of it retaining state power at the next general elections appear extremely slim. Credit should be given to the man behind the success of the UDC, the biggest threat to the ruling party since the pre-1998 BNF.
The Harvard-educated Duma Boko, president of both the BNF and the UDC, is a highly intelligent man albeit with a considerable dose of cockiness that perhaps emanates from his sense of self-confidence. With political guile and savviness, despite being a political rookie, he created self-belief within the ranks of an erstwhile moribund BNF and fashioned a political behemoth out of the UDC. The UDC’s electoral achievements make Boko the most successful political leader in the country’s history especially in light of the huge challenges he had to overcome. He took over an unstable BNF beset with infighting, indiscipline and rock-bottom morale. His detractors within the party mounted numerous court challenges to nullify not only his presidency, but his very membership of the party he led, and to stop it from joining the UDC.
Within a limited space of time Boko also had to oversee a complex and particularly sensitive process of forging a new political party out of three separate political entities; a process that included the distribution of wards and constituencies between the parties that make up the collective, as well as the harmonisation of different ideologies to craft a single electoral platform. Against this background, his achievements are remarkable to say the least. In particular, he had the foresight to stick with the umbrella project even after the BCP, a major political bloc, had pulled out (they vehemently deny this). And by the look of things, Boko and company do not have the slightest intention of being in the opposition for too long - they have already started campaigning for 2019; they cannot wait. This is the kind of an adversary that awaits the BDP at the next general elections.
Given the momentum that the UDC has created, in its current shape and form, the BDP will be easy meat in 2019. However, not all is gloom and doom for the ruling party; if it plays its cards right it can turn its fortunes around to win the 2019 general elections, and the next one. The fact that in 2014 the BDP managed to snatch a number of seats from the opposition means that it is still a force to be reckoned with and is thus far from having run its course. Above all, it still has a lot of political goodwill it can exploit to reclaim its past glory. However, this can only happen if the party institutes reforms to address its plethora of shortcomings, notably those that the UDC successfully capitalised on in its campaign for the 2014 general elections. Opportunities in the past for the institution of reforms in the party have gone begging. And when the BCP opted out of the opposition collective ahead of the 2014 general elections, the BDP was fortuitously handed a final opportunity to candidly introspect and introduce the required reforms. This is where the party finds itself today. There is no way around the reforms; the BDP has to face up to hard truths for its very survival. It is that simple.
The next instalment will discuss the shortcomings of the BDP.
Bugalo A. Chilume