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Botswana’s ruling party has been in power 50 years. That could change this week.

The Botswana Democratic Party has held the presidency since 1965.

- October 20, 2019

When Botswana holds elections on Wednesday, the party in power faces perhaps its toughest race in more than 50 years. Botswana has long been committed to multiparty political competition, yet the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has won a majority of parliamentary seats and held the presidency through all 11 elections since 1965.

In this year’s election, the BDP is far from certain of victory. What has changed? Here are five things to know:

1. There’s declining support for the BDP

Although the BDP has held a legislative supermajority since 1965, its support has waned. The party has won only a bare majority of votes since 1994, and claimed less than half the vote in the last election, in 2014.

The BDP continues to dominate the legislature — holding 70 percent of the seats in Parliament — aided by first-past-the-post electoral rules and the president’s constitutional authority to appoint six parliamentary seats.

Source: Author’s figure based on data compiled from Independent Electoral Commission of Botswana and the National Assembly of Botswana.
Source: Author’s figure based on data compiled from Independent Electoral Commission of Botswana and the National Assembly of Botswana.

2. The current president has never led his party to national elections

Botswana’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, has only held office since April 2018. The BDP selects its party president once every 10 years, one year before national elections. Masisi, who had previously served as vice president, came to power in a smooth transition upon the retirement of former president Ian Khama, who served from 2008 to 2018.

Masisi has been actively campaigning for his party’s candidates with a slick social media campaign and rallies across the country. However, he did not participate in a presidential debate until Oct. 16, leaving voters just one week to compare his performance against opposition candidates head to head.

3. The BDP suffered a damaging split

Khama’s retirement in 2018 exposed damaging tensions within the BDP. He is the son of Botswana’s first president, Seretse Khama (in office from 1965 to 1979), and a paramount chief with traditional authority over the BDP’s heartland. The party initially brought Ian Khama into politics to strengthen the BDP after its poor showing in 1994, but his dictatorial tendencies weakened the BDP.

Although Khama handpicked his successor, the relationship with Masisi quickly soured. The two have publicly clashed over the honors and benefits due a living ex-president, the firing of Isaac Kgosi — director of Botswana’s security service — and Botswana’s recently lifted ban on elephant hunting.

Khama supported personal allies over Masisi’s preferred candidates in BDP legislative primaries in late 2018. Then Khama backed Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi instead of Masisi for the BDP presidential nomination. Shortly after Venson-Moitoi’s bid failed, Khama began publicly campaigning for opposition candidates.

In August, Khama launched a new party, the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF). The party stands little chance of winning many seats. But BPF support will be coming from the BDP heartland — its candidates include incumbent MPs Biggie Butale and Tshekedi Khama, Ian Khama’s brother.

4. The former president has a history of rivalry

This damaging party split is not the first linked to Ian Khama. In 2010, factional rivalry split the ruling BDP between Khama supporters and a group of younger BDP MPs and their allies.

The Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) faction then joined the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) coalition. In 2014, the BDP’s vote share plummeted to 47 percent of the national vote. And the longtime ruling party won just 37 of 57 elected parliamentary seats.

5. The opposition has been gaining strength

Botswana’s stubbornly high unemployment rate — currently nearly 18 percent — has created a fertile climate for opposition parties. The closure in 2016 of a nickel mine in Selebi Phikwe, a mining town of over 50,000, has drawn further attention to the problem, in a country long reliant on the mining industry. The two largest opposition parties — the Botswana National Front (BNF) and Botswana Congress Party (BCP) — have put aside their differences and remain unified in the UDC coalition.

The UDC presidential candidate, Duma Boko, and his vice presidential candidate, Dumelang Saleshando, have overseen an effective campaign that has held rallies across the country to reach beyond their urban support base. Despite substantially fewer resources than the ruling party, the UDC also has built up a strong online presence.

Last year’s BDP primary elections left a pool of unhappy primary election losers. Thirteen of the BDP’s 38 incumbent MPs — including four ministers — lost their primary bids, suggesting widespread discontent with the current administration. At least 13 within that group are running as opposition or independent candidates.

Will the opposition struggles usher in a BDP victory?

Political risk firms and domestic analysts see signs that Masisi and the BDP may weather the opposition challenge and be voted into office once more Wednesday.

Rivalries and factionalism have led to a split in the BMD, once a pillar of the opposition coalition — in fact, the UDC expelled the BMD, which meant repeated court cases over the past year.

A new BMD splinter party, Alliance for Progressives (AP), boasts five sitting MPs and is competing against the UDC in over two-thirds of constituencies. This effectively splits the opposition vote, with two, and in some cases three or more, candidates running against the BDP — and could enable the long-ruling party to claim a majority of parliamentary seats with far less than a majority of votes. Even if the BDP fails to win a majority, it will likely still win the most seats, strengthening its bargaining power to form Botswana’s first coalition government.

As the campaign draws to a close, Botswana’s citizens will decide between continuity and change. A recent Afrobarometer poll estimates that 44 percent of voters plan to support the BDP, roughly the same percentage that voted for BDP candidates in 2014.

However, how those votes are distributed across Botswana’s 57 parliamentary constituencies will be critical — there is no national vote for president. The BDP has held office through multiparty elections longer than any other political party in Africa — many in Botswana and elsewhere will be watching the results closely Wednesday.

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Shana Warren (@ShanaS_Warren) teaches contemporary African politics at New York University. Her research examines party primaries and elections in Botswana and across Africa.

Note: Updated Oct. 3, 2023.