The big puzzle

Edward Bule - BG correspondent
Monday, 10 August 2015
The big puzzle

Lebang Mpotokwane is happy that Botswana Congress Party (BCP) has resolved at its congress in Kanye that it is ready to enter into cooperation talks with the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC). Mpotokwane is the convenor of the opposition cooperation talks that resulted in the formation of the UDC ahead of the 2014 general election.  “This is good news. It offers hope that what we had originally wanted will materialise,” he said in an interview.

UDC comprises of Botswana People's Party (BPP), Botswana National Front (BNF) and Botswana Movement for Democratic (BMD). Mpotokwane and his committee are worried that, although opposition parties have always existed in this country, they have always been too weak to offer themselves as a serious alternative to the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) which has been in power since 1966. For starters, the BDP won 37 constituencies to the opposition’s total of 20 seats in the 2014 general elections. With the total number of constituencies standing at 57, the opposition needed only an additional nine (9) seats to achieve the minimum requirement of the 29 seats to dethrone the BDP.

Significantly, it occurred after the election that, had there not been vote splitting between the UDC and the BCP, 13 more parliamentary seats could have been won by the opposition. After the general election the spectre of vote-splitting encouraged opinion makers to pile more pressure on the BCP to consider working with the other opposition parties. The party was accused of having saved the BDP from losing power by staying out of the Umbrella 2 talks following the collapse of the Umbrella 1 talks. Equally unhappy were some members of the BCP who even threatened to decamp should their party not embrace opposition cooperation. It was argued that the poor performance at the polls by the BCP was a statement by the voters that they did not approve of the BCP stance regarding opposition cooperation.

The hitherto fastest growing party lost five of its total of eight parliamentary seats at the polls last year. Opinion is divided over whether the BCP resolution at its congress in Kanye recently was anything opposition cooperation enthusiasts should celebrate. In 2010, the party made a similar resolution at its congress held in Maun only for the talks, dubbed Umbrella 1, to collapse due to disagreements with the other partners especially on the allocation of constituencies. Following the decision to go it alone by the BCP ahead of last year’s polls, a long season of acrimonious accusations and counter-accusations ensued between the UDC and the BCP much to the chagrin of those who considered a fragmented opposition as a liability to the country’s democracy. 
Although many applaud the BCP for responding to the demands of the voters as the party president Dumelang Saleshando implied in his speech to the delegates in Kanye, many fear that not much will come out of the envisaged Umbrella 3 talks. They are convinced that this time around, the stakes are much higher making the negotiations even harder.

The composition of the central committee of the new look UDC as well as the allocation of constituencies, are likely to be the deal-breakers. Anthony Morima, a social commentator observed in an interview that because the possibility of attaining power by the opposition is more real than in 2014, there is likely to be more fighting for constituencies and wards in Umbrella 3. The problem is likely to be compounded by the fact that the respective influences of the BCP and the UDC have altered significantly after the election. The parties were almost at par in terms of parliamentary representation before the election last year but with the BCP down to three seats and the UDC at 17 seats, the negotiations are likely to be poisoned by emotions of bitterness and arrogance.
The UDC might, perhaps mistakenly, refuse to consider the BCP as an equal partner.

Some members of the UDC hold the view that with or without the BCP, not only can they retain the 17 seats they have but win 12 more constituencies in the next election to achieve the target of 29 seats. “Several things need to happen for the talks to succeed. One of them is for the BCP to acknowledge their being a junior partner. They lost it in 2014 when they had more credibility. On the other hand, the UDC must show maturity and not let their main opposition status go to their head. Should this happen, the public might shift its sympathy and support to the BCP,” observed Morima who however thinks the BCP could have done better to go it alone again and serve as a third option. Although the BCP performed dismally in 2014, it came second after the BDP in 17 constituencies while the UDC got second position to the BDP in 20 constituencies. Besides, the party maintained its 2009 popular vote of 140 000 votes doing better that the UDC in a total of 20 constituencies.

According to Lawrence Ookeditse, the BCP resolution in Kanye is really nothing new. “The announcement on its own is nothing new because we have had such expressions of intent before especially after an election. It might actually be a survival tactic by the beleaguered party,” said the academic. Asked whether it will be possible for the two entities to trust each other and negotiate in good faith especially considering the bad blood that has existed between them when they went through an acrimonious period of finger-pointing before and after the election, he said. “Forget about trust. The two can cooperate even if they do not trust each other. It is called realism. They know they need each other,” he opined. In his view, even if the BCP declaration was genuine, like Morima, he believes that the devil is in the details.

Ookeditse contends that the biggest challenge for the opposition camps remains the model of cooperation. “For example, the BCP might not want to join the UDC in the present structure but propose alterations which might not be attractive to the current affiliates of the UDC. The BCP might propose for a new party altogether although I believe that would be ill-advised. Perhaps the best way forward would be for the BCP to not create more problems for themselves and their potential partners by allowing for the UDC to remain as it is currently provided they get some slots in the UDC executive and central committees,” added Ookeditse.

His take is that the project has got both opportunities and risks in equal measure. “There is no doubt that cooperation brings with it a lot of opportunities for the parties concerned. But imagine what would happen if they lose the 2019 general election even after cooperating,” he wondered. In his view, that possibility requires the BCP to think hard before joining the bandwagon. “Joining the Umbrella by the BCP would certainly produce a much bigger coalition but if the entity loses the election in 2019, there will be serious recriminations,” warned Ookeditse. While cooperation could help the parties to win power, there is also the problem of loss of identity. “The challenge of loss of identity is real especially if eventually the Umbrella becomes unsustainable causing the parties to go their separate ways. The smaller parties would suffer the most because, right now, executive positions are held by the leaders of the bigger parties in the UDC. This state of affairs reduces the visibility of the leaders of the smaller parties such that, should the Umbrella break, they will be starting from scratch.

The visibility and spread of smaller parties are also limited when constituencies are allocated to the cooperating parties,” explained Ookeditse who added that cooperation may reduce even the bigger partners to regional entities.  Ookeditse said that there was always the potential for talks to fail especially when the other party feels that its values, principles and strategic interests are undermined. Instead of joining the UDC, he said the BCP has another choice. “The BCP could instead offer itself as a third choice by going it alone again. The BCP could choose to be the tie-breaker between the UDC and BDP in the next general election and avoid the risks associated with committing to opposition cooperation,” observed the political scientist. Should the cooperation talks fail and the BCP lose the propaganda war again, chances are that it would sink further into political oblivion. One of the challenges of opposition cooperation is that it causes instability in some if not all the parties.

Indications are that members of the BCP who were recently suspended were preparing to leave their party in favour of the BDP because they were irked by the congress resolution for the party to explore cooperation with the UDC. It is reported that the Southern regions of the BCP are less welcoming to the cooperation project than the northern region. Said a source, “In many cases, personal interests are at play. If the BCP joins the Umbrella and the 2014 general election results are used as a guide, many BCP activists would have to give way to the UDC because in many constituencies and wards in the south, the UDC did better than the BCP.” To this, Ookeditse said, “All should be acutely aware of the sacrifices that will have to be made at council, parliamentary and leadership levels that come with cooperation.”

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