Botswana, calm for decades, faces surprising election fight

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In this April 5, 2019, photo, Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi, center, is photographed at a rally in Gaborone, Botswana. The country’s ruling party, the BDF (Botswana Democratic Party) faces the tightest election of its history on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019 after former Botswana President Ian Khama, annoyed with his hand-picked successor, Masisi, announced his support for the opposition. (AP Photo/Sello Motseta)

GABORONE, Botswana (AP) — Botswana’s ruling party faces the tightest election of its history on Wednesday after former President Ian Khama, annoyed with his hand-picked successor, announced his support for the opposition, shaking up one of Africa’s most stable countries.

The influential Khama, son of founding President Seretse Khama, withdrew his support after current President Mokgweetsi Masisi broke with some of his policies, including by loosening restrictions on elephant hunting in an apparent bid to appeal to rural voters.

Some Botswanan analysts say Khama defected from his own Botswana Democratic Party because Masisi challenged his control of the party, which has been in power since independence in 1966, and targeted some Khama allies in an anti-corruption drive.

“There is now a growing recognition that Masisi, who has been in office for barely a year, must be given a chance to rule. The Khama effect is slowly beginning to fade,” said Leonard Sesa, senior politics lecturer at the University of Botswana.

Khama stepped down last year following two terms in office after positioning former deputy Masisi to take over the diamond-rich, landlocked nation that lies north of South Africa. Khama later decided to openly support the opposition coalition Umbrella for Democratic Change and its presidential candidate, human rights lawyer Duma Boko.

Botswana, with 925,000 registered voters in a population of 2.2 million, has enjoyed stability and peaceful elections for more than 50 years. Masisi in a presidential debate this month said he would accept an election loss, while Boko was noncommittal.

In an opinion piece for Foreign Policy magazine earlier this month, Boko warned that Masisi and his supporters “will chip away at Botswana’s reputation as a democratic success story in Africa.”

Some in Botswana have criticized the former president’s rejection of his own party.

Khama is just trying to extend his power, said Dorcas Kobela Makgato, head of the ruling party’s women’s wing.

“He should just let go,” she said. She isn’t worried by his high-profile campaigning against former colleagues: “He comes for flying visits. I am on the ground every day.”

Kamogela Phatsimo, a student at the Botswana International University of Science and Technology, said the opposition is being more assertive in this campaign.

“I would like to see Khama retiring with dignity and going to his farm,” she said, expressing her wish to see Botswana change after years with the same people in charge. “He is very hypocritical, because he headed the regime for 10 years and now he is discrediting the party.”

Emboldened by such public impatience, opposition leaders say their coalition has a chance to unseat the ruling party.

“The prospect of winning the election is high,” said the Rev. Prince Dibeela, vice president of the opposition Botswana National Front and a candidate for a parliament seat. “People are tired with the mismanagement of the BDP. People want change and the Umbrella for Democratic Change is a viable alternative.”

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