Botswana, often hailed as an oasis of peace and stability in Africa because of its regular smooth transfer of power, will be entering uncharted territory when it holds its keenly awaited general elections on Wednesday October 23.
Former president Ian Khama has broken with tradition to challenge his successor Mokgwetsi Masisi in the polls and his shadow will loom large over the polls with his breakaway party - the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) - contest elections for the first time.
Lt Gen Khama claims BPF will get at least 14 seats in Parliament with some analysts predicting an outcome ranging from too close to call to a historic defeat for the Botswana Democratic Party that has ruled the country since independence.
In the last elections five years ago, the BDP lost the popular vote after it got 47 percent but secured 37 seats against the opposition’s 20 to retain power thanks to Botswana’s first past–the–post democracy.
An Afrobarometer poll carried out in July and August predicted an easy win for the BDP.
“In a hypothetical election, the ruling Botswana Democratic Party would enjoy a 2 to 1 lead over the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC),” Afrobarometer said.
More than half of the respondents - 56 per cent – said they identified with the BDP against 22 percent who said they were with UDC.
Only two per cent said they identified with Lt Gen Khama’s BPF but Peter Fabricius, a consultant at the South Africa based Institute of Security Studies (ISS), insisted that the former president’s defection from the ruling party had made the outcome of the polls unpredictable.
“Former president Lt Gen Ian Khama is the wild card in this week’s Botswana elections. His bitter public fallout with his successor Masisi has made the outcome uncertain and raised some concerns about political and economic post-election stability,” he said in a preview of the polls published by the ISS.
Mr Fabricius believes the UDC - a loose coalition of opposition parties - presents the biggest threat to the BDP as it has the potential to split the ruling party’s rural stronghold.
In central Botswana, Lt Gen Khama’s Bamangwato clan where he is a chief, has overwhelmingly voted for the ruling party in its previous 11 consecutive victories since independence.
It is now backing BPF to which the former president’s younger brother Tshekedi, a minister in President Masisi’s government, defected on the eve of the polls.
Open Society for Southern Africa executive director Sipho Malunga said BPF, even without wrestling power, would hurt BDP “badly”
He said Lt Gen Khama had revived BDP’s popularity especially in rural areas by virtue of being chief of the Bamangwato; the majority ethnic group in the central region.
“Their allegiance to their (chief) improved the fortunes of the BDP. Now that he has severed ties with the BDP, many of his subjects may follow suit,” Mr Malunga said in Africa Report.
Lt Gen Khama has joined forces with his BPF candidate Biggie Butale and other opposition leaders including Duma Boko of the UDC.
Mr Butale has made audacious promises including creation of 100, 000 jobs, fourfold increase in pensions, doubling the minimum wage and increasing student allowances by 56 percent.
“We should come up with an innovative youth development programme. In government we would get rid of inertia, red tape and ensure equity, fairness and social justice,” Mr Butale said during the country’s first ever Presidential debate on October 16.
Organised by a coalition of non-government organisations, the debate pitted President Masisi, Boko, Butale and the Alliance for Progressives’ Ndaba Gaolathe on matters including the economy, foreign policy and governance.
President Masisi has promised to step up the fight against corruption which is believed to be at the center of his falling out with Lt Gen Khama and his allies.
Since coming into power President Masisi has reversed most of Lt Gen Khama’s signature policies including the relaxation of alcohol trading hours, restoring relations with China and lifting a ban on trophy hunting.
Despite a peaceful give-and-take campaign, the alleged financing of the opposition by South African businessman, has raised temperatures.
Authorities seized aircraft belonging to the businessman that was used by Mr Boko during the campaigns.
“Never in history of the country has the result of an election been so uncertain,” Mr Malunga wrote, relying on projections by Fitch Solutions that showed BDP at 35 percent of the vote and the opposition alliance at 40 per cent
Garnering the 29 seats required for an outright win may prove elusive for both the BDP and the opposition.