SEROWE, Botswana (AFP) – Voters went to the polls in Botswana’s general elections Friday, with the ruling party facing an unprecedented test against an invigorated opposition in one of Africa’s most stable democracies.
Queues formed early at polling stations, with some 800,000 registered voters eligible to choose a new parliament — which then elects a president – in the diamond-rich, sparsely-populated nation bordering South Africa.
“All voting started smoothly at 6:30 am (0430 GMT) in all our polling stations,” Botswana Electoral Commission spokesman Osupile Maroba said.
The election is billed as the most challenging for the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), led by President Ian Khama, which has governed the landlocked country since independence from Britain in 1966.
Khama is battling to win over voters in urban areas, where opposition parties have made some inroads since the formation of a breakaway party, the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) in 2010.
The 61-year-old son of the country’s first president, Seretse Khama, Khama is also a traditional chief of the Bangwato clan and can count on strong rural support as he runs for a second term in office.
In Serowe, Khama’s home town north of the capital Gaborone, women covered in blankets waited patiently outside polling stations.
“We won’t let our president down, that is why I am here so early. I am voting for our party here, the BDP of Khama,” said Amantle Ramasia, a 67-year-old Serowe resident.
“He is our chief, I know his family well and he is a great man for this country,” she added.
Khama voted at a community hall in the town, accompanied by his younger brother Tshekedi Khama, the minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism.
Women ululated as he stepped out of a white four-by-four. He did not stop to greet the elated supporters, jumped the long queue to pick up his ballot and left shortly afterwards.
The parched town, with many traditional thatched roof households, has given the country three presidents – two Khamas as well as Festus Mogae.
Despite this illustrious history, the town is still steeped in poverty, with some roads winding between humble homes still unpaved.
But electricity cables criss-cross above stunted trees, a sign of development many of the locals credit to the ruling party government.
“Change is slow, very slow. I think the government is taking care of us but it’s not enough. We need jobs,” said Tau Mongwase, an unemployed youth from the village.
“The mines are not hiring us anymore. Things are very tough for young people here.”
With the global financial crisis leading to a drop in diamond revenues, Khama’s government halted planned investment, leading to growing unemployment and slow progress in diversifying the economy.
Fighting to topple Khama is Dumelang Saleshando, leader of the official opposition, the Botswana Congress Party (BCP).
According to an Afrobarometer report issued last week, the BCP — which has campaigned under the slogan “Ready to Lead” — is the fastest growing party in the country.
Another major contender is Duma Boko of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), a coalition of parties including the breakaway BMD which will be contesting the elections for the first time.
Boko has accused Khama of being increasingly authoritarian, arguing the country needs a change in leader.
But few expect a change this time round.
“Victory for Khama and the BDP is certain,” said 31-year-old Frances Khomo in Gaborone.
“I don’t see anyone who is good enough to lead other than the BDP, hey have the experience of running the country and deserve more votes.”