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Last Updated:22 May 2014
Email story Print story Botswana
In its 44-year history of holding elections regularly, Botswana has always enjoyed generous praise around the world for its "free and fair" elections.

But as I've argued in the past about other perceptions of Botswana's democracy, the fairness (as opposed to the freedom) of our elections is actually not as praiseworthy as it has always been made out to be. True, Botswana is a multi-party state where political parties are free to campaign openly and express themselves freely in an effort to win the support of the electorate.

To my mind, there has never been any firm evidence of actual or even attempted fraud on the part of the authorities in the conduct of elections. This was the case even during the many years when the Permanent Secretary to the President also had the official title of Supervisor of Elections. Thus, the freedom of our elections has indeed always been unassailable.

Not so the fairness of the same elections. A major weakness in this regard is the unevenness of the country's electoral playing field. For instance, although there's reference to it in the Electoral Act or some other legislation, there's simply not enough regulation of or control over how the country's political parties fund their election campaigns. Which leaves enormous room for abuse and manipulation of these parties by those in a position to help fund their electoral campaigns.

Although all political parties are potentially vulnerable in this regard, those in power are particularly vulnerable in that donors generally compete to fund them with a view to currying favour with and gaining influence over them.

That's why the large donations that the BDP often gets from what it calls its friends are always criticised by other parties as well as by the press. They are criticised because such donations not only worsen the already uneven electoral playing field, but also open BDP governments to all sorts of manipulation by the "friendly" donors.

The reality about such gifts to political parties in power is that they are given in declared (but often undeclared) expectation of some favours in return.

Another factor that makes the levelling of the electoral playing field in Botswana so difficult is the huge factor of incumbency - a factor that occurs in virtually every democratic society. When political parties are in power, they invariably have a significant head start over their opponents in any electoral contest. This is understandable because being in power, by its nature, has obvious advantages over being in the opposition.
In Botswana, however, the ruling party has the extraordinary advantage that it gets from the state-owned electronic media. Here - as in most third-world democracies - such media are fully controlled by a government department, rather than an independent board that would be expected to safeguard their integrity as public broadcasters.

This explains why it was so easy recently for the Office of the President to instruct both Radio Botswana and Botswana Television to broadcast President Khama's statement about an internal dispute in his party.

Readers will recall that at the time, I argued that there was "some validity" in the view expressed by the president in his statement that any turbulence in the ruling BDP was bound to affect the rest of the country.

The permanent secretary of the ministry responsible for the state-owned broadcast media expressed a similar sentiment later when she justified the use of the state's media to broadcast Khama's statement. While I still stand by my view on this issue, I nevertheless feel that given that the broadcasters' code of conduct was in place by the time of the president's statement, permission should have been sought from the NBB for a special dispensation for the statement. I concede, however, that I make this suggestion although I'm not familiar with the contents of the code of conduct for broadcasters.
Regarding the NBB's ruling that the opposition parties should be allowed equivalent time on the state's broadcasters to deliver their own statements to the nation, it deserves strong commendation. I hope the opposition statements will also be carried on radio and TV as many times as that of President Khama. The ruling makes the opposition parties feel that for once, they are being treated on equal terms with the BDP on state-owned Radio Botswana and Btv. This is also the case in the ongoing election campaign. All which should always be the case in a democracy.

I, however, support the view expressed by others recently that the new code of conduct needs to be reviewed urgently lest it stifles national political debate too much. Given the low level of political awareness in this country, and the resultant persistent low voter turnout at elections, we need far more political debate on the airwaves than is possible under the NBB's rather restrictive code of conduct.


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