Instead of the nation celebrating news reports that the Botswana Democratic Party intends to increase the number of constituencies from 57 to 120 in aid service delivery, observers say this should be a cause for concern.
The resolution to increase the constituencies comes a year after an unprecedentedly poor performance by the ruling party at the general election when it managed only 37 percent of the vote to the opposition’s 53 percent. After the 1994 general election where the opposition did very well, constituencies were increased from 40 to 57.
Although the recent proposal for the dramatic increase came by way of a resolution made at a conference by the Gaborone region, the idea is similar to a proposal by Botsalo Ntuane in his reform agenda in the run up to the Mmadinare congress in July this year where he was elected secretary general of the party.
Number 20 of Ntuane’s BDP Reform Agenda Conversation: 22 Discussion Points paper says, “Let us conduct a fresh delimitation exercise ahead of 2019 general election to create more electoral districts. Botswana is a vast country but has less constituencies than countries of comparable and even smaller size such as Mauritius, Lesotho, Swaziland and Namibia.” Both Ntuane and the Gaborone region want smaller constituencies which are easier to handle in terms of service delivery.
When contacted for comment, the chairman of the Gaborone region, Bontsi Monare was not in a position to say what informed the region’s decision to increase the constituencies in the first place and why 120 electoral districts in particular.
Monare could also not say whether the countries of Mauritius, Lesotho, Swaziland and Namibia have got better service delivery interventions than Botswana and whether the size of constituencies have got anything to do with the status of service delivery in the concerned countries.
“We have escalated our resolutions to the central committee and, while awaiting feedback, we cannot at the same time discuss those with the media,” he said. Skeptics, however argue that the proposal is not motivated by commitment to service delivery by the ruling BDP but by the naked self-interest of the ruling party.
They argue that the BDP, which is under threat from the opposition if the 2014 general election results are any guide, will manipulate the exercise to create more winnable constituencies for itself. This form of cheating by giving one political party an advantage over the others by redoing constituency boundaries in order to win more constituencies and remain in power is called gerrymandering.
The act and name originated in 1812 when the Governor of Massachussets in the USA, Elbridge Gerry, whose party, the now defunct Democratic-Republican Party had resolved to have the constituencies increased, signed a bill that allowed the redrawing of constituency boundaries. The measure was done in a way that favoured Gerry’s party. According to Professor of Political Science at the Fordham University, Christina Greer, the patterns of the constituencies were very strange because they were illogically constructed. Someone compared them to a salamander prompting the Boston Gazette to add Gerry’s name to the name salamander and a new word, gerrymandering, came into being.
A salamander is an amphibian with close physical similarities to a lizard! Gerrymandering, which has been defined as “...the process of dividing up and redrawing districts to give your political party an advantage,” results in an uneven electoral field. It is accomplished by either packing or cracking a constituency. When packing a constituency, ruling governments neutralise the opposition by making sure the new boundaries put the opponents’ supporters into as few districts as possible.
The cracking takes place when the strongholds of the ruling party are divided into as many pieces of electoral districts as possible. It has been employed by many African countries to reconfigure wards and constituencies in favour of the ruling parties while diluting the influence and strength of the opposition. Significantly, the justification for a delimitation exercise is always that it is in aid of efficiency as it ostensibly facilitates service delivery.
In the run-up to the 2008 general election in Zimbabwe, according to an independent report, the country was redrawn into 210 Lower House constituencies. “Of the 90 new Lower House constituencies, a massive 62 were drawn up in ZANU PF’s rural strongholds with only 28 given to urban constituencies where the opposition draws most of its support.” Commenting on the results of the delimitation exercise at the time, spokesperson of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change(MDC), Nelson Chamisa said, “It is made more sinister because while cutting constituencies and drawing up boundaries in such a way that our support is diluted, the delimitation process increases the number of constituencies in ZANU PF rural power bases.”
There are concerns that, if the proposed increase of constituencies is intended to save the BDP from losing the 2019 general election, the inevitable delimitation process will be used to manipulate the exercise in favour of the BDP. For instance, more constituencies would be created in the BDP strongholds while opposition party strongholds get less constituencies.
University of Botswana(UB) political science lecturer, Professor Zibani Maundeni said in an interview that he had always advocated for the creation of more constituencies and hence more MPs. “My reasons have got nothing really to do with service delivery. The expansion of parliament would alter the balance of power between the backbenchers and the executive. We have a very weak parliament because only a few of them are back benchers.
If you bring more MPs it means a stronger parliament because there will be more backbenchers,” said Professor Maundeni. Asked about the possibility of gerrymandering, he replied that his hope is that the checks and balances in place would preclude such electoral shenanigans. “For example, after parliament decides on the quota, the electoral commission, which consists of High Court judges, takes over.
Should they allow themselves to serve partisan interests, that would be unfortunate indeed,” explained the Professor who however admitted that the recent appointment to the judiciary of persons allegedly aligned to the establishment bodes ill for our democracy.