11/09/2017 03:58 SAST | Updated 11/09/2017 03:58 SAST

Botswana's Imploding Political Climate Has Become More Edgy, Bordering On Volatility

The country's political landscape is perhaps at its most implosive state in the country's entire 50-year democratic history.

Siphiwe Sibeko/ Reuters
Botswana's President Ian Khama speaks during the Botswana-South Africa Bi-National Commission (BNC) in Pretoria, South Africa, November 11, 2016.

The global trend of declining democratic values has been rapidly increasing. Botswana has not been immune to this trend. The country's political landscape is at its most implosive state in perhaps the country's entire 50-year democratic history. Political parties are growing more unstable, Parliament has grown more dramatic and less efficient, and cases of corruption are growing.

In addition, incompetence in public offices continues to comfortably occupy seats at government and parastatal institutions. As a result, more young people have been disenfranchised from politics altogether and the general electorate is turning away from dominant established political parties and is looking to alternative avenues to express their political discontent.

The current political climate is marked by aftereffects of the 2008 global financial crises which explains why Botswana's political climate has become more edgy, bordering on volatility.

The world is seeing a rise of populism and its different strands, growing inequality, wealth disparities and regressive forms of economic and political nationalism. An uncertain future is making small democratic countries, its citizens and its institutions very nervous. For the middle class, whose standards of living are declining, these developments make them politically volatile.

The challenges of poverty are creating noticeable democratic deficits. Voters are now turning away from the politics of dominant political parties and are either finding alternative forms of political engagement or staying away from politics completely. Voters tend to lean towards independents who reflect their discontent and speak directly to the issues affecting them. In Botswana, voting numbers continue to decline especially for the traditional support bases of the ruling BDP or shift towards opposition parties.

Botswana's weakening democracy has been made worse by the inability of the governing party to effectively deal with issues of corruption, a largely uninspired civil service, the growing signs of state and party capture by private capital. The party struggles to sound and look like a political party of 2017 despite its vibrant and young membership that speaks a rhetoric and vision for the country that is different from its old guard. The party's membership always gets shocked like the rest of us when its parliamentary caucus approves outrageous bills such as the use of electronic voting machines.

Factional wars within Botswana's political parties aren't a new trend. The governing party itself has given birth to several political parties which have given birth to other political parties.

Botswana's opposition parties are also relatively weak and are still struggling to convince the majority of the population that they are ready to assume state power. A significant fraction of the population is convinced that the governing party is doing a crappy job, but they are also prepared to quickly point out how playful the opposition is. It took more than three years for the opposition unity talks to conclude and give birth to a consolidated opposition bloc, namely, the Umbrella for Democratic Change.

Individual political parties themselves are plagued by factionalism that undermines the whole unity project. In addition, despite their constant critique of the ruling party's obsession with President Khama, opposition parties seem to have the same problem of a cult of personalities. This makes it difficult to see the bloc as a long-term project that will survive in the event of its leader's absence. Factional wars within Botswana's political parties aren't a new trend. The governing party itself has given birth to several political parties which have given birth to other political parties.

Therefore, democracy in post-independent Botswana is facing serious and severe stresses and strains. These deep rips at the fabric of Botswana's democracy have grown throughout Ian Khama's presidency -- which had high expectations from the beginning. It was thought that his background as a former army commander would bring stability into the governing BDP and therefore that stability would translate into governance. His presidency coincided with a global economic recession and a period where social media usage in the country gained rapid momentum.

This meant that the Ian Khama administration would be under a much bigger scrutiny as compared with his predecessors. Young people had a voice, political debates grew bigger and expectations of government accountability grew even bigger. We may also give credence to the current crop of opposition leaders whose rise to power coincided with Khama's ascension to the Presidency. These are well-educated, relatively young and eloquent leaders who elevated the quality of debates and brought a different culture of speaking truth to power.

Since 2008, Khama's approval ratings have dropped, especially among the urban and younger population who yell out, "Don't believe the hype" whenever an overzealous article pops up on Botswana's global rankings. The threats to democracy in Botswana can now be seen at many levels of the economy, society, state-party relations, the deterioration of the gravitas of Parliament and the relative capture of both ruling and opposition parties. This is tantamount to a crisis on so many levels.

Those in political leadership are struggling to find stability and cohesion.

In essence, a united opposition bloc seems to have a firm grasp of the country's problems, but can't seem to earn their seat at the table. For the rest of the younger generation, politics bears a similar repetitive tone. The young are talking while those in power can't help but stay stuck in the nostalgia of the olden days.

The current era of politics points to an important period where political parties are searching for a renewed relevance and purpose in people's lives. Those in political leadership are struggling to find stability and cohesion. This has sent many contradictory identity signals and growing tensions between self-interest and national interests on the one hand, and lofty cosmopolitan values proclaimed to be central tenets of our domestic politics.

The 2019 general elections will be one of the most important moments for Botswana. As Khama's two-term rule comes to an end in 2018, it has coincided with a growing opposition movement in the form of political parties, labour unions, the private media and a more vocal, young electorate that has figured out what it wants from its leadership and is ready to demand it.

The stakes will be higher and this election will determine a lot. The next batch of leaders must understand these changing dynamics. Botswana may be a bit older, but it is a young democracy that has matured slowly. Political parties and those who control the levers of economic and political power and dominate civil society must learn to listen and listen very carefully to the drums of discontent that is building up among citizens.