|Voter apathy: a case study from
by Hugh McCullum
GABORONE, 15 October 1999
Multi-party democratic elections, so new to many
southern African nations, are "old hat" in Botswana since independence in 1966. Some 460,000 registered voters, about 52 percent of those eligible to vote in the national elections could go to the polls tomorrow to choose 40 Members of Parliament to govern them
for the next five years.
The final rallies are held today (Friday), the grueling cross-country campaigns are over and the election posters are already eginning to look faded and tattered in the hot sunlight. The next step is up to the voters
and that old problem for many democratic countries -- North and South -- of voter apathy is also bedeviling Botswana.
The opposition parties blame the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP.). It in turn says the opposition parties -- Botswana Congress Party (BCP),
Botswana National Front (BNF) , the Botswana Alliance Movement (BAM) and a few smaller parties -- run
the kind of negative campaigns that turn off voters.
In an effort to widen the franchise, the voting age here was reduced from 21 to 18, usually an enthusiastic age, but politicians say they have no idea whether, or for whom, the younger people will vote.
President Festus Mogae has visited all areas of the country in what his press spokesperson, Andrew Sesingi, calls the "biggest marathon campaign in
many years." He says Mogae, widely touted to win tomorrow's contest, is aware of apathy and is trying to do everything possible to raise interest in the election and the issues. Vice-President Ian Khama has spent much of his time in the rural areas where the BDP is strongest, urging the peasants to return the ruling party with a stronger mandate.
The opposition parties, strapped for funds, spend much of their time in the urban constituencies around Gaborone, Francistown and Maun where they feel they can pickup votes.
At the final press briefing of the campaign today, Sesingi was challenged by some of the journalists that not enough was being done to excite the voters to turnout at the voting stations by the BDP and the Independent Electoral Commission. Carefully reminding them -- as if they needed reminding -- the smooth spokesperson
stressed the IEC's independence and that its job was to run the election, not promote it, and that he, as a civil servant would only talk about issues, not politics.
And, once again he raised the issues: poverty is serious but not as serious as the media as said, denying it was at about 46 percent of the country's 1.3 million people but declining to give an actual figure; unemployment is
another issue the government is taking seriously; privatisation and support for business is dear to the
BDP's heart; and the contentious issue of Botswana's high HIV/AIDS epidemic is getting both money and support from government.
His outline of the issues was little different from what the opposition says except that they argue vociferously that the government is not doing nearly enough, has mismanaged the country and its economy and ignored HIV/AIDS for far too long.
But then, he gently chided the journalists for the media's role in voter apathy. Careful not to step too far into the political arena, Sesingi said "voter apathy has been a problem in Botswana since 1966 and we hope this
time round it will improve. Young people are very uninformed and apathetic. We appreciate the media and what it does but it too has a responsibility to raise the issues and cover the campaign."
Botswana has a different media mix than most SADC countries. It has one daily newspaper, "The Daily News" a small tabloid published by the Ministry of Information which is free and carries mostly news agency news. It is a sort of unofficial gazette. Recently, however, it published the manifestos of the three main parties in one centre-spread. Its editor is chief information officer for the government. The Botswana Press Association
(BOPA) and Radio Botswana are also government-controlled.
There is no functioning television as yet. There are a few small commercial radio stations which carry mostly music.
On the other side there are four lively and very independent commercial weekly tabloids which publish considerable political and anti-government news as well as a mix of other information. They are competitive, come out on different days of the week in full colour with racey headlines, lively graphics and lots of scandal, corruption and dirt. Reporters are a mix of staff and freelancers and move around from paper-to-paper. These are: the venerable Mmegi, the largest circulation newspaper, the Guardian and Gazette which compete head-to-head and the Mid-Week Sun aimed at a more
youthful audience. While accurate circulation figures are difficult to obtain, they all hover between 20,000 and 25,000.
Then there is The Voice, printed fortnightly, edited in Francistown and published in Gaborone with the wildest circus layout outside Fleet Street. It unabashedly imitates the (London) Mirror with a completely different
style from the four weeklies, "giving people a much more human interest perspective of what they want than the endless politics of the other four," says publisher Beata Kasale. Her critics call it a scandal sheet.
However, on this the last election week of the 1999 campaign, media interest in the election was muted, to say the least. The Gazette and Mid-Week Sun played Air Botswana's tragic loss of most of its fleet in a deliberate
suicide-crash all over page one and both relegated campaign issues to a few inside pages. The Gazette
predicted the outcome (27 seats for BDP). The Sun was scathing of the opposition parties inability to unite and offer a real alternative.
Mmegi, which regularly gets under the government's skin, virtually ignored the election in its last issue, playing a customs scandal as top story and running a small speculative piece on whom Mogae was going to replace in his new cabinet even before the elections were held. Inside, some perfunctory coverage of events around the capital city. Editorially none of the papers seems to support a specific party and accepts that BDP will win easily, debating only by how much.
Only the Guardian today (Friday) hyped the campaign on page one and devoted a large number of its 44 pages to the election, offering an interesting mix of news, analysis and history. Like Mmegi, it looked to a future cabinet,
how Mogae has united the faction-riddled BDP of the past and, with his own mandate to rule, can overhaul the cabinet he inherited from his predecessor, Sir Ketsumile Masire.
The Voice hadn't appeared at the time of writing due to some technical problems, but Kasale grumbled that the whole effort was "boring."
Most journalists seem to agree and some even are willing to take the blame for voter apathy.
"We covered the State of Emergency over the lost voters, we covered Khama's helicopter trips and we did the usual rallies but that was about all that happened. Maybe we have to learn to be more creative about election coverage. Remember, this is a big country, small population and many of us just don't have the resources to chase candidates around the rural areas,
says Mike Mothibi, editor of the Mid-Week Sun.
But, he adds with a trace of defensiveness, "it still makes for pretty dull reading." (SARDC)