Electronic voting: Botswana’s elephant in the room ahead of polls

BOTSWANA, the vast but sparsely populated diamond rich country, has been consistently hailed as a bastion of democracy, holding free elections since independence in 1966.
Only recently, the country witnessed a bloodless, smooth transfer of power for the fifth time, with former army general, Ian Khama handing over power to his deputy, Mokgweetsi Masisi, who becomes Botswana’s fifth President.

By Bakang Mhaladi

But as Botswana prepares for its 12th election in 2019, the media landscape has been dominated by a new elephant in the room, the electronic voting machines (EVM).

This will be the first time since the first election in 1965, Botswana introduces an electronic voting system, to replace the manual process.

However, the move has been met with overwhelming resistance from the opposition who argue, this is meant to influence the outcome of the poll, which has been dominated by the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) since independence from Britain.

The body tasked with organising Botswana’s elections, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), argues the EVMs are meant to enhance and speed up the electoral process.
The opposition Botswana Congress Party (BCP) has taken the EVM case to court, but no ruling has been made, leaving the door open for its use in an election expected in October.

During countrywide consultations on the use of the electronic gadgets, IEC consultant, Gabriel Seleetso admitted there were deficiencies surrounding EVMs, meaning they can be tampered with. However, the former IEC boss, said the government will go ahead and purchase the EVMs, which will be used in 2019 according to the revised Electoral Act.
All the country’s 57 constituencies will use the machines, to be purchased at a cost of around $300 each.

Opposition parties, held a demonstration in 2016 against a Bill, which was passed in Parliament, paving the way for the use of the EVMs in the next election.

Two years later, and just months before the elections, the matter is still a hot potato, but the opposition parties appear to be fighting a losing cause.

Critics argue, the EVMs are likely to contaminate Botswana’s elections, which have, thus far, been regarded as free although there are questions if the process is fair.

The entry of the EVMs was seen as a game changer, which might tilt perceptions regarding the outcome of the country’s elections.

“For the first time, we hear people from across the political divide expressing apprehensions that EVMs will be used to subvert democracy and with that the will of the people.
This is an altogether new narrative in our political discourse never to be made light of.

Government and more recently some segments of the ruling party have been falsely and in some instances wickedly trying to pitch EVMs as a technological advancement,” writes Kenneth Dipholo, a columnist with the weekly Sunday Standard.

Botswana’s elections have been devoid of violence, which has dogged most African countries, with campaigns largely held in a cordial atmosphere.

There is the rare interaction of opposition and ruling party activists with the media reporting little intimidation. Instead, it is opposition fights and splits, which dominated the headlines in 2017.

While Freedom Squares appear serene, there are several hot potatoes, which the opposition want the ruling party to attend too.

Opposition parties feel the playing field has remained uneven, with the ruling BDP having unlimited access to State resources, which it uses to campaign.

The Botswana government has rejected political party funding, which opposition parties argue, puts them at a disadvantage while propelling the incumbent.

Cabinet ministers have access to State resources which they usually use to traverse the vast country on official duty, but the opposition believes, they also take advantage to push political campaigns.

Until there is State funding of political parties, there would be apprehension, particularly among opposition members, that the ruling party will always have a head start in an election, particularly in remote areas, which require vast resources.

Media coverage has been a regular sore thumb for the opposition, which feels the ruling party has an unfair advantage.

The State media, which has a wider reach, provides unlimited coverage to the ruling party.

The Daily News and Botswana Television are State-owned and have been accused of bias, and the opposition argues, the status quo has persisted.

What has irked the opposition is that the BDP has justified the biased coverage. The uneven coverage has concerned media body, the Media Institute of Southern Africa-Botswana, which calls for equal access to State media.

With Botswana under new leadership, eyes will be on Masisi to see if there are any reforms going into next year’s election.
The media has focused on the fragmented opposition, which had formed an alliance, but collapsed towards the end of the year, with the formation of new coalition, the Alliance for Progressives.

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