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Few Surprises Expected in Botswana Election

Botswana is holding a general election Saturday. It is almost certain that the Botswana Democratic Party of President Festus Mogae will stay in power, so analysts are more interested in how the opposition votes will stack up.

Botswana has long been considered one of the most stable democracies in Africa. The diamond-rich nation has enjoyed 38 years of uninterrupted multi-party democracy. This is its ninth election since independence from Britain in 1966.

Denis Kadima heads the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, and he is in Botswana with a small team of election monitors from around the region. He says Botswana should not take its democracy for granted.

"Botswana, yes, they've had a long tradition of elections," Mr. Kadima said. "But increasingly, other countries have come, and Botswana is no longer an exception. And there are very clear areas where Botswana can also learn from other countries."

Botswana's 38 years of multi-party democracy has not meant multi-party rule. The Botswana Democratic Party has held power since independence, and its current leader, the country's popular President Festus Mogae, is expected to easily win a second term.

Opposition parties have complained about Botswana's electoral system, which is a constituency-based system modeled after Britain's. Because the ruling party's popularity is fairly uniform across the country, the party has a disproportionately large number of seats in the National Assembly.

In the last election in 1999, opposition parties won slightly more than 40 percent of the votes, but only won 17 percent of the seats in parliament.

"That is really something that the country here needs to consider very seriously, because in the region we believe that stability needs to be combined with fair representation of different political, social, ethnic groups also," added Mr. Kadima.

This year, several opposition parties have formed a coalition instead of running separately, and that is expected to boost the opposition's overall showing in parliament. Analysts consider it extremely unlikely that the coalition will challenge the Botswana Democratic Party's (BDP) dominance. But they say if the coalition stays together, that could change by the next election five years from now.

In the run-up to this poll, Mr. Kadima says opposition parties have complained about unequal access to state resources, which they say gives the ruling BDP an edge. Some have also said that the ruling party has gotten too much coverage from the state broadcaster, although Mr. Kadima says that problem is not nearly as bad in Botswana as it was in recent elections in Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Another concern for Botswana, he says, is that the constituency-based electoral system has made it very hard for women to get elected to parliament. In the last election, only about 17 percent of the seats went to women.

"The electoral system also plays a very negative role in terms of women representation. In SADC [the Southern African Development Community] we have this target of minimum 30 percent representation of women in decision-making institutions. While countries using proportional representation systems, like Mozambique, South Africa and Namibia, are doing well, Botswana in that regard is very archaic," he explained. "They are very, very below that 30 percent."

Mr. Kadima fears women will fare even worse in this election, since the number of seats has risen significantly, from 40 to 57, but the number of female candidates has stayed about the same.

Some of the key issues in Botswana include unemployment, which is difficult to measure. Officially, it is around 20 percent, but some local economists believe the real figure may be about twice that.

HIV and AIDS have created a huge strain on Botswana, despite President Mogae's aggressive approach to fighting and treating the disease. The country has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, around 37 percent. The World Health Organization says life expectancy has dropped to just 57 years.

Still, the ruling party remains popular, and the economy has been thriving, driven by Botswana's rich mineral resources, especially diamonds.