Botswana: One of Africa’s most stable democracies, but where are the women?

Botswana held its first genuinely competitive elections on 23 October 2019. Unlike previous elections, the 2019 elections saw a major challenge to the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), which has dominated the political arena since independence in 1966. All five of Botswana’s presidents since independence have been from the BDP, which has led to criticisms of one-party dominance.

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      While the new level of party competition and fair conduct of the election seem to confirm Botswana’s place as one of Africa’s most thriving and stable democracies, the level of representation, especially of women, remains a challenge.

      Why was this election different?

      In this election, four main political parties were competing in both the parliamentary and council elections: the BDP; the Botswana Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC); the Alliance for the Progressives (AP); and the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF), which was formed in July 2019 with the support of former president Ian Khama.

      Following the coalition formed by the UDC for the 2014 election, the opposition has slowly been gaining ground in Botswana – despite now having lost two seats compared to the seventeen seats in 2014, which was an all-time high.

      But another element of competition related to who won for the BDP. During election campaigning, most interesting was the pre-election fallout between former president Ian Khama and incumbent president Mokgweetsi Masisi, who previously was Khama’s vice president.

      Khama officially resigned from the ruling BDP and instead gave support to the newly formed BPF, which also allied with the umbrella UDC to avoid splitting the opposition vote – as had happened in 2014. This reduced voter support for the BDP in some constituencies, which had already fallen in the 2014 election where it garnered less than 50% of the votes.

      The 2019 election results showed a difference in voting patterns from the past elections: the BDP lost votes in its central region stronghold, which voted in favour of BNF. In contrast, the southern regions voted for BDP, differing from their vote for UDC in the 2014 election. Despite the heightened competition and changes in voting patterns, ultimately BDP won country-wide votes and secured 38 seats in parliament.

      While a UDC win would have meant Botswana’s first change in power, the BDP victory nonetheless signals the end of the personalised politics, or what some have called ‘Khama hegemony’.

      Free and fair elections?

      Duma Boko, head of the UDC, Botswana’s leading opposition, made allegations of election rigging. He questioned the integrity of the voter’s roll and said that the votes had been inflated as the ruling party won by an unexpectedly high margin. This is one of several common tactics employed to sway an election process before, during and after elections.

      Allegedly, some UDC supporters were turned away at the ballot box due to errors made by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) – this included omission of the gender of some voters on the voter’s roll, preventing them from voting. In addition, Boko claims there was a “33% discrepancy between the number of people the IEC said were on the roll in March and the actual total when counted” in the elections in October.

      The IEC has denied allegations of rigging and said that those opposing the results are free to challenge the outcome of the election results through the courts within 30 days of the election – which the UDC did on 21 November. This channel of appeal follows Kenya’s landmark decision in 2017 when the supreme court overturned the election due to results being promulgated before all the votes had been counted.

      Election challenges have also been lodged by opposition leaders in key 2018 elections in Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Mali and the DRC, although in all these cases the court dismissed the challenges. For Botswana the outcome remains to be seen.

      Botswana has long enjoyed peaceful elections and is one of the continent’s stable democracies. International bodies, including the African Union (AU) and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), sent electoral observation missions to the 2019 Botswana elections. Both of their preliminary statements concluded that the elections were held in a peaceful and transparent manner and largely conformed to international, continental and regional best practices and standards.

      All told, this seems to confirm the country’s democratic reputation, except in one major aspect of representation.

      Where are the women?

      As both the AU and SADC observation missions noted, one aspect seems to have regressed: the number of female candidates.

      Only 11 out of 210 parliamentary candidates were women in the 2019 election, representing 5% of the total number of candidates. This is a downward shift from 2014 when an already small number of candidates (17 of 192) were women, despite the fact that women represented 55% of registered voters. Ultimately only 3 out of the 57 elected members of parliament were women. No women were put forward as a presidential candidates.

      The 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG), the continental legal framework on the promotion of democracy, free and fair elections and good governance, obliges member states to encourage full and active participation of women in the electoral process and ensure gender parity in representation at all levels, including legislatures. Similarly, the Maputo Protocol mandates member states to ensure increased and effective representation and participation of women at all levels of decision-making, including through affirmative action measures.

      Botswana has neither signed nor ratified ACDEG or the Maputo Protocol, citing a need to look more closely at the provisions of the charter. But it has signed the revised SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, which urges countries to ensure equal and effective representation of women in decision-making positions, including through the use of special measures. This has led some countries to introduce quotas to ensure gender parity in political representation. Botswana has a voluntary 30% quota for political parties, but this has clearly not yet had an impact.

      The 2019 Global State of Democracy report by IDEA notes that in Africa, significant challenges remain in achieving gender equality and Sustainable Development Goal 5 on women’s political representation. Women in Africa lack equal access to political power and their inclusion remains a major hurdle for most countries. The 2019 Global Gender Summit, held from 25 to 27 November in Rwanda (the highest ranked African country working towards closing its gender gap) also addressed women’s participation.

      On 4 November, president Masisi chose four women as part of the six specially nominated MPs, thereby increasing female MP representation to seven – a move that was welcomed nationally. Some barriers identified by Botswana women’s civil society and political groups include the lack of legally mandated quotas right from the political party level; lack of political party funding; patriarchal beliefs that women are not capable to perform in office; and the unaccommodating political atmosphere towards women.

      Much therefore still needs to be done to ensure that one of Africa’s most stable democracies, commended for its peaceful elections, does not lag behind in ensuring gender parity towards more female representation in political office. Then Botswana would really be a beacon of inclusive democracy.

      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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