Enabling Political Parties to Participate in Elections

Tuesday, 10 November, 2009 - 16:36

The Batswana went to the polls for the 10th time since independence from Britain in 1966. The African Union urged Botswana to provide state funding to political parties to enable them to strengthen its democracy and level the playing field.

Botswana eligible voters went to the polls on 16 October 2009 to exercise their democratic right to vote in the country’s 10th election since its independence in 1966.

According to Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of Botswana, a total of 732 617 resident Batswana and 1 641 non-resident Batswana registered to vote in the 2009 elections. Of the total registered voters, 403 056 were female, 320 561 were male and 320 561 were youth.

The election provided an opportunity for citizens to vote for candidates belonging to seven political parties and 15 independent candidates, affectionately known as “mokoko”. Candidates were contesting the country’s 57 constituencies. Media reports had long tipped the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) to win; the main race was between the BDP, the Botswana National Front (BNF) and the Botswana Congress Party (BCP).

The Botswana elections have been described as free and fair by both citizens and the election observers. However, other than the BDP, securing funding to launch a successful election campaign was a difficulty faced by political parties.

Even though it was widely expected that President Ian Khama, the son of the country's revered first President Sir Seretse Khama, would retain his position, lack of state funding for political parties is not good news to Botswana’s democracy. It limits other political parties’ ability to take their election messages nationally. Lack of state funding to political parties prevented them from interacting with their supporters. Technically, it gives the ruling party an unfair advantage over other parties during the campaigns.

Some politicians had to fund their own elections campaigns from their private accounts due to lack of state funding to registered political parties contesting the elections. There are risks associated with this practice; politicians might use people’s votes as a ticket to access public office, abuse state resources and corrupt the state. Secondly, lack of state funding makes it impossible for political parties to campaign nationally thus giving the ruling party an advantage over other parties. This has the potential to create perceptions that citizens should vote only for the ruling party. This will damage the credibility of the country’s democracy in the long term.

I support the call made by the Africa Union (AU) that Botswana should consider state funding of political parties to strengthen its democracy and level the playing field. The head of the AU mission, Brigalia Bam, who is also the chairperson of South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), maintains that the funding should be done "based on fair and equitable formula that aim to strengthen the participation of political parties in the democratisation process of the country".

State funding can go a long way in discouraging politicians from going to any public office with the intention to loot state funds to pay for the debts incurred during their elections campaigns. It can also result in the mushrooming of a generation of political parties and independent candidates who vie for votes with the view to benefit financially from the state.

The SADC Council of Non Governmental Organisations (SADC-CNGO) said that from the meetings it held with various stakeholders, “It noted the ongoing debate on the need for political party funding to create equal opportunities for effective participation in elections by all political parties”. Uganda, Burundi, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi are some of the African countries that are already providing funding to political parties.

I argue that the tendency of African ruling parties to use state resources for election campaigns is fast becoming a culture in African politics. The abuse of state resources helps the ruling parties to further position themselves for more power and create an impression that they are the only legitimate choice for the voters.

During the build up to the elections in Botswana, the BNF complained that the BDP was abusing the state media during the campaign period. BNF spokesperson, Mohwasa Moeti, said this abuse included space allocated to BDP in the state media. On a positive note, Mohwasa points out that despite their grievances, the people have spoken.

As for Khama, the 47 seats which the DBP won should translate into enabling the diamond-rich country to create jobs, fight inequality, and alleviate the country’s poor out of extreme poverty. Khama should join South Africa, SADC, AU and other players to help the neighbouring Zimbabwe to find long-lasting solutions to its economic and political problems - rather than just condemning President Robert Mugabe without concrete solutions.

During the election campaigns, the media quoted him as saying that “if Zimbabwe’s unity government collapse for genuine reasons, his government will not recognise a Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front-only government or one headed by Mugabe because “he did not win the presidential election last year”.

Winnie Nonofo Motseokae works at the African Human Rights Consortium (http://www.africanhumanrightsconsortium.org/contact.html) in Botswana. She writes in her personal capacity.

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