2019 Botswana Elections Recap:Where Did It Go Wrong For The Opposition?

As I mentioned on my last post, this year's general elections were slated to be the closest in the country's 53 years of democratic independence, a notion which was shared by academic pundits, the media and the general public.

A couple of factors were responsible for this stance, including the Botswana Democratic Party 's factional tussle between incumbent president Masisi and the former president Khama which had left the party seemingly crippled and the growing strength of support for the Umbrella for Democratic Change which was still riding on its increasing momentum from the 2014 general elections.

The growing popularity of the Alliance For Progressives was also another factor which contributed to the feeling amongst Batswana that the 2019 general elections were either going to be a three-horse race between the AP,UDC or BDP or a very tight 2 horse race between the BDP and UDC with AP being the kingmaker between the 2.

When the results came in, they put the pre-election sentiment held by most to utter shame.  Not only did the BDP increase their number of seats in the 12th parliament of the Republic of Botswana, they also increased their popular vote which had fell significantly in the 2014 general elections.

Comparison of the BDP's popular vote and parliamentary seats between 2014 and 2019

To add insult to the opposition's injury, the BDP also managed a sweep of the opposition in all of Gaborone and most southern constituencies which had been the UDC's stronghold since 2014. UDC president Duma Boko and AP president Ndaba Gaolathe—the opposition's presidential hopefuls—were some of the few opposition candidates to succumb to the BDP's dominance.

The UDC, on the other hand, showed an impressive 5% increase in their popular vote despite getting two fewer seats in parliament compared to 2014. Although they lost out on numerous constituencies in the south, they managed to make up for it by garnering a few more from some northern constituencies which had been the BDP's forte.

Comparison of the UDC's popular vote and parliamentary seats between 2014 and 2019

Looking at the forementioned numbers, it becomes clear that although the UDC had an increase in overall popularity, it failed to capitalize on this growth in constituencies that mattered. Another interpretation could be that the BDP's factional wars did not weaken the party's structure and popularity as most people thought it did.

One can choose— and reasonably so— to bestow the credit of this resilience on the leadership of Masisi and the overall campaign of the BDP. However, another probable reason could be that the UDC shot itself in the foot by getting into bed with former president Khama, a not-so-popular figure in the southern parts of the country especially the capital Gaborone.

The general opinion about him among the populace was that his seemingly authoritarian style of leadership over his decade long tenure in the country's highest public office had been the reason for the tumultuous period that the country found itself in, characterized by among others skyrocketing levels of unemployment and looting of public funds. After his departure in April 2018, the general mood was a sigh of relief so it would make sense that voters would not want to vote for anyone who was associated with him. 

It would also not be wrong to assume that maybe the BDP had always had popular support in the south but that support had become latent under the leadership of Khama. Taking this stance, it would then make sense that the people would go back to voting for the BDP after his departure. Figures prior to 2008 when Khama assumed presidency show domination in numbers by the BDP before a plummet from his incumbency until the 2019 elections.

Another reason that could be presented for the opposition's capitulation at the hands of the BDP could be the vote splitting phenomena which is a nasty side effect of the first-past-the-post electoral system used in Botswana. When the results were coming in last week, they were a lot of instances where—for example—a BDP candidate would garner say 40% of the vote and a UDC candidate would get 38%, with the rest of the votes split between other opposition contesting like the AP or BPF candidates.

This would logically mean that the opposition cost themselves numerous seats by not sticking together under one coalition but although this reasoning appears apt, it means we would be insinuating that the sole reason that voters' decision on who to vote for is based solely on party affiliation, a notion which is unfounded.

The last probable reason for the opposition's knuckling under in the 2019 general elections could be— well— good ol' cheating by vote-rigging and other means. Although the elections were certified free and fair by the Independent Electoral Commission and other independent observers, this weekend Khama held a rally citing what he termed as irregularities in some processes during voting which he says may have influenced the outcome in BDP's favor in some constituencies. Whether this was just vitriol being spewed by a bitter man or a serious contention of the results remains to be seen as no complaint is yet to be formally lodged by either him or the UDC.

The 2019 general elections seem like a wasted opportunity for Botswana's opposition to invoke a regime change by successfully ousting the BDP and stopping their 53-year dominance right on its tracks. Whether they will get another opportunity to go to the polls against a more weak, broken and ailing BDP in the near future remains to be seen.