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Constitutional review should be national interest

Publishing Date : 17 September, 2019

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The ruling party has in its 2019 general elections manifesto, promised to initiate a process of constitutional review. There have been calls from various quarters over the years for government to consider embarking on this particular process.

The reason advanced for constitutional review are mostly valid, but there are indications that the process may be used for personal or party interest as opposed to national interest as it is supposed to be. The 1997 constitutional amendments are generally accepted as good development; the 10 year presidential limit; reduction of voting age to 18 years, but the automatic succession provision remains a centre of debate in our politics today.

Historically, the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), has always used the constitution as way of consolidating its power. Incidentally, former Cabinet Minister David Magang, in his memoir warned that the BDP should resist from thinking that it will always be in power and that if there is something that BDP needs to be reminded about, it is that one day it will be the opposition, and if at all it is concerned about championing constitutional provisions that work only in its favour, it is destined for a rude awakening.

One of the earliest reforms that were introduced was in 1974, when the constitution was amended to introduce a president who was not a Member of National Assembly. Initially, the constitution required that a president be an Elected Member of the National Assembly, thus he served as constituency MP as well as President.

The introduction of this reform was a reaction to the loss of then Vice President, Sir Ketumile Masire in the 1969 General Election. His loss meant that he had to be brought back to parliament as Specially Elected, but the underlying problem which the ruling party identified and tried to avoid was a possible future scenario in which party presidential lost his parliamentary seat, therefore becoming ineligible for presidency.

There is also a commonly held believe that the 1997 constitutional reforms were used as conduit to resolve BDP’s factional battles and succession plans. Festus Mogae, who had become president in 1992 as a result of BDP infightings, became the beneficiary of the newly introduced provision. It is believed that Masire introduced this provision to offer Mogae—who was not considered strong politically, as opposed to Ponatshego Kedikilwe—a safe passage to the presidency and to avoid possible party split owing to infightings.

Automatic succession is not a law peculiar to Botswana. In fact, the oldest democracy in the world, the United States, has this particular provision. However, in Botswana, automatic succession has use as a conduit that manages successions in the BDP and in the process, many believes it undermines democracy. 

Today, the BDP is embroiled in another infighting and has suffered another split, the second in under 10 years. There are reports that some party parliamentary candidates are intending to floor-cross with their seat from BDP to opposition ranks immediately after general elections, a development which may affect BDP majority, in the event that it wins.

It is against this background that BDP President Mokgweetsi Masisi has announced plans to introduce a law that would bar MPs from crossing the floor with their seats. The law may be good for stability but the agenda still remains the same: they serve the interest of the ruling party. In Westminster parliamentary systems such as ours, where individual candidates come first as opposed party, it is normal for MPs to floor cross. It is also democracy.  Introducing this law will effectively give the party power over MPs in the sense that, MPs may be re-called if they do not toe the line or act in accordance with the desires of the ruling party.

For instance, in a scenario where a party expels an MP, the seat may be declared vacant, unless the law specifically address this matter.  It will be a law which undermines democracy and the will of people. If that is not enough, having such a law in place will weaken parliament. MPs who are beholden to the party are not effective. We should as a nation avoid laws which do not build the nation, laws that undermine democracy and laws that are self-serving.



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