Botswana: Constitutional and electoral reform

Extracted from: "Botswana" IN Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa (2002), edited by Tom Lodge, Denis Kadima and David Pottie, EISA, 39-40.

By the early 1990s the country's urban constituencies had increased four-fold (eight out of 40, compared with two out of 31 in 1965), benefiting the BNF, which had meanwhile become the main opposition party. By posing as the champion of urban people's interests and exploiting their grievances, the BNF broke the log-jam in the country's politics by winning almost one-third of the National Assembly seats in the election of 1994, including all the urban constituencies except one.

These results had a positive impact on the ruling party. They gave rise to serious introspection and debate among some senior members about obvious deficiencies in the electoral system and the opposition's accusations of both the government and the BDP being arrogant and unresponsive to the people's needs. Even before the 1994 election, different groups within the party emphasised various tactics and strategies to counter the growing electoral threat posed by the BNF. This included serious consideration of changes to the constitution and the electoral system as had long been demanded by the opposition parties. No doubt, the government and ruling party were also influenced by donors, advisers and perhaps also by informed, but not necessarily partisan, members of the public, such as students.

The pressure for political reform was given further impetus by the most serious public unrest peaceful Botswana had ever experienced in modern times. It started in January 1995 in Mochudi - not far from Gaborone - where school children demonstrated against the release of suspects detained after the ritual murder of a young girl. The subsequent march by university students on the parliament buildings in Gaborone turned violent but was suppressed by a special police unit, using excessive force. These incidents rocked the country and highlighted a broader issue, namely all people's feelings of powerlessness and frustration arising from having to cope with 'unresponsive authoritarianism'.

In the wake of the disturbances President Masire announced that the voting age was to be lowered and that an independent electoral commission would be established, obviously addressing the more fundamental issues underlying the crisis. In November 1995 he reaffirmed these intentions and added that the feasibility of voting in elections by citizens abroad would be examined. At the same time, a special congress of the BDP resolved to limit the tenure of the party leader (and consequently the country's president) to a maximum of two 5-year terms. All these changes were accepted at a conference attended by the ruling party and the opposition parties, held in May 1996. Furthermore, the BDP agreed that National Assembly and local council elections be separated and that the practice of the government nominating a certain number of councillors, in addition to the elected ones, be abolished.

The political reforms, conceded by the BDP in Botswana's 30th year of independence, represented a calculated risk by the government and ruling party who realised that it was imperative for both to make electoral gains in Gaborone and other urban centres, especially among the urban youth. This would not have been possible without these concessions.

As required by the country's constitution, the proposed constitutional amendments were put to a referendum on 4 October 1997. Only 16.7% of the electorate voted in the referendum, which endorsed the changes (see Referendum results 1997 for more detail). Two additional reforms, not subject to a referendum, were included in the constitutional amendment bill: the restriction of the presidential term to ten years (two 5-year terms) and the provision for automatic succession of the vice-president to the presidency upon the death or resignation of the president, though subject to confirmation by the National Assembly.