The story of floor crossing in Botswana political history is almost as old as the country’s parliamentary democracy is. It has been raised more specifically and intensely by Opposition parties and rejected in the same measure by the perennial ruler the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) at different parliamentary sittings. When Opposition parties raised objection to floor crossing, they would have been at the losing end. That is, Members of Parliament (MPs) and to some minor extent Councillors would be crossing the floor to join the BDP. The BDP would allow floor crossing because it would be benefitting from such movement and in the process, weakening the Opposition for political end game. So when floor crossing benefits the BDP, the Opposition cries foul and it is the reverse in the likely event that the Opposition stands to benefit. In the latest round of floor crossing, the BDP is rushing the motion on the same because there are undercurrent signals that some of its MPs and Councillors are on the verge of crossing to the Opposition. In fact, one or two sitting and a good number of former BDP Councillors have already departed at this stage, to join Botswana Patriotic Front. I am not going to discuss the merits and demerits of floor crossing for I will do so at a later stage.
Up to this point and assuming the Bill on floor crossing passes to be law, Botswana has had no law on floor crossing yet the same has occurred unabated across the aisle over the life of the country’s political history. All that an MP requires when they wish to cross the floor is to comply with parliament Standing Order 6 (2) which states that ‘Any member who crosses the floor or changes his political allegiance shall inform the Speaker in writing as to which party she/he belongs.’ Finish and klaar! Not so this time around. Government Gazette Extraordinary No. 75 dated 17th July 2020-Constitution (Amendment) Bill No.14 2020 for MPs and Bill No. 15 of 2020 (Local Government (Amendment) for Councillors seeks to put an end to floor crossing. Key proviso for MPs is to ‘cause a vacancy in the seat of an Elected Member of the National Assembly who, having been elected to the National Assembly as a candidate for a political party, resigns from the political party…..’ A similar proviso obtains for the Councillors who wish to cross the floor.
The BDP shameful hypocrisy
The BDP has stated unequivocally that a comprehensive constitutional review would be undertaken immediately it won the 2019 general election. The expectation from the message in this regard and in my view was that a piecemeal approach to a comprehensive constitutional review wouldn’t be undertaken. As stated in the proposed motion with respect to MPs and Councillors, there could be serious constitutional matters with attendant implications to the electoral law beyond passing this Bill into law. Was this Bill given fair or sufficient attention by different stakeholders like political scientists, constitutional experts and other relevant academics beyond the BDP? Was a referendum as a tool that offers and promotes participatory democracy by the voter not desirable given that the voter is the one who causes individuals to become MPs and Councillors? Without a voter, there can be no MPs and Councillors. Is this Bill urgent not to wait for a comprehensive constitutional review? The proposed Bill appear not to answer these questions.
Truth be told, this Bill is urgently but without good cause, brought by the self-serving interests of the BDP primarily on the instability within its own ranks and not in public interest. Just like the automatic succession dispensation was pushed through to quell BDP instability at the time by Sir Ketumile Masire, Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi is facing a similar instability threat hence his quick movement to use the country’s Constitution to supress it. Parliament is not a private BDP fiefdom wherein it should be used to settle internal party squabbles.
Even with internal instability, I think the BDP is unnecessarily and overly pressing the panic button on floor crossing because it has a healthy numerical advantage in the National Assembly to withstand any disturbance should there be some movement in that regard. Firstly and out of the 57 directly elected MPs, it has 38 out of which about 12 are returnees from the 11th parliament. The Opposition shares the paltry remaining 19 with 15 for UDC, BPF 3 and AP 1. Even if it lost 5 of the returning MPs to the Opposition who are suspected to be contemplating to do so, this will be insignificant numerically speaking. The remaining 7 or so of the returnees are the Vice President, cabinet ministers and deputy ministers. By any stretch of the imagination therefore, it is hard to imagine that these could jump ship. Secondly, many of BDP MPs are new and would not want to rock the boat given the material and other trappings of their positions. So with or without floor crossing, the BDP cannot in my view suffer any irreparable harm to its numerical advantage as things stand.
The BDP has always closed ranks under telling internal instability in its history including motions of no confidence on its Presidents; events of the Gantsi congress; MPs and other notable leaders who walked out to found Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD); the founding of BPF and so on. The current instability is no different in form or shape from the previous ones and should therefore, not cause the BDP to unnecessarily press the panic button. It could be argued that the party is not taking chances by acting proactively. I don’t think so.
The shameful hypocrisy is that the motion on floor crossing has been on the parliamentary floor on many occasions mainly from the Opposition. In one instance I vividly remember, a BDP MP Mme Gladys Kokorwe brought such motion in 1998. The BDP and using the might of its numbers in parliament, conveniently adopted the motion but never followed it to its logical conclusion. The purpose for which these motions were brought to parliament is still the same (and I stand corrected as always) with the current one-to block other MPs and Councillors from joining other political parties with seats from the original parties. The promised comprehensive Constitutional review appears to have been an election-year gambit as crucial constitutional matters are being undertaken piecemeal to settle internal political scores. It cannot be more hypocritical than that.
Opposition parties’ shameful hypocrisy
At the time of writing this article, only the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) had responded to tabling of the motion on floor crossing. I may have missed BPF position but AP seems to be in sync with the UDC. Like stated above, Opposition parties are the ones who started the ball rolling on the subject matter years ago when the Botswana National Front was ‘still’ the mother of opposition politics in Botswana. But history has recorded that in 2012, Hon Wynter Mmolotsi successfully sneaked in a proposal to defer the floor crossing Bill after realising that the BDP was thin on its benches. It is reported that the deferment was meant to seek further consultation or something to that effect. The flip flopping of the Opposition on a matter it had long advocated for tells a story of political convenience more than anything else.
As the original proponent of a law on floor crossing, the Opposition has now somersaulted by saying they are going to reject the motion. Constitutional and legal components are cited as some reasons. While these components appear persuasive, I want to believe that in principle, it should be saying Tanki morena re kopane le bone (loosely translated to mean thanks God we got what we always wanted). It would be in the similar context when it agreed in principle with the Assets and Liabilities Bill provided the gaps therein were plucked. Reasons for rejecting the motion are not far-fetched though. Owing to the political instability at the BDP and chances that some of its MPs and Councillors could decamp to the Opposition bloc, it stands to be the beneficiary of such decamping movements. It is a strategic political decision with prospects of weakening BDP numerical advantage in parliament to possibly and ultimately, collapse government. It will be accepted that the world of politics is a dog-eat-dog terrain where in instances a political party stands to benefit from any unfolding situation, constitutional and legal questions become peripheral. That said, the flip flopping and playing politics of convenience by the Opposition is hypocrisy of epic proportions. It cannot be more hypocritical than that as well.
In conclusion, the BDP and the Opposition are displaying shameful hypocrisy with respect to floor crossing. And this is a political game they have played for the longest time. When the game favours either player, the other complains and vice-versa. The BDP is facing internal instability out of its own making which it wants to contain through a parliamentary process like it did with the introduction of the automatic succession back then. This automatic succession I must say, has to some extent, come back to haunt the same BDP and by extension, the Republic’s political trajectory in more ways than one. The current BDP instability could be traced to the automatic succession issue. The BDP is an institution in its own right with internal processes to deal with errant members. There is no need to rush to the Republic’s Constitution. The Opposition is conveniently hypocritical by not sticking with the principle that floor crossing is undesirable when it suits it and somewhat somersaults when it doesn’t. Either party cannot complain about floor crossing because they have both benefitted from it at different times. It has been and still is a two-way street if you like. At the end of it all, it is fair to say that convenient politics by both parties is on display and only time will tell how it unfolds further down the line. But one thing is certain: the motion will pass. It could very well confirm the saying that politics is a dirty game given the prevailing circumstances. I am prepared to be persuaded otherwise as always. Judge for Yourself!
We are not out of the woods as yet. Health protocols are still our best available defence to fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Wash your hands with soap and clean water frequently, ensure social distancing and continue to wear your masks at all times.