Backbench rebellion: A perspective

The jury is still out on the posture and performance of the backbench, but for many there opposition MPs are no longer strange bedfellows

There is perceived insurrection of the backbench in Parliament. What is going on in the 12th House? To better understand this, we need to look at the structure of Parliament and the governance model adopted by Botswana. Botswana uses a hybrid system of both the Presidential and the Westminster Parliamentary models. The President is both Head of State and Government and Members of the Executive are drawn from both elected and Specially Elected Members of Parliament, resulting in an executive-legislative fusion.

There is a total number of 57 Elected MPs and six Specials. In the 12th Parliament, the ruling party has 38 Elected MPs and six Specials and the Opposition has 19. In other words, the ruling party has a total of 44 MPs. If you add the President, who is an ex-officio MP, there are 45 altogether. Out of these 45 MPs, one is President, one Vice President, 18 Ministers and eight Assistant Ministers. This makes a total of 28 members of the Executive and 17 backbenchers. Therefore, Cabinet makes 62% of the ruling party and the backbench is at less than 38%. About 44% of the House is therefore the executive. In other Parliaments, the numbers hover around 10% of members being Cabinet. It is undesirable for the executive to dominate the House. It is an antithesis in democratic oversight.

Members who do not hold positions in government are referred to as the backbench. Their role is not too different from the opposition. These MPs have little influence in shaping public policy, especially that numerically in the 12th Parliament, they are inferior. However, they represent their constituents and are expected, at least by the electorate, to articulate the opinions or concerns of their people in the House. They can ask questions, table motions and private bills, as well as debate any government business.

Backbenchers have been different in their approaches to issues in the House. In the 12th Parliament, some have been very vocal on issues affecting their constituents and have sought to hold the Executive accountable on a variety of issues. Almost all opposition proposals so far have been supported by the backbench. Some backbenchers have been clear in their debates that they will support everything that can help Batswana or their constituents, regardless of which party the presenter represents.

However, while some have opted to speak truth to power, others accept the political authority and proposed policies or principles of their party willingly or unwillingly. Those who do so unwillingly often fear disciplinary action or being in the bad books of the party’s top brass. Those who reluctantly support do so at times because they hope to be rewarded with chairing committees, promotion to Cabinet or special assignments or even being personally supported in businesses or other endeavours. Refusing to toe the party line has resulted in some MPs losing primary elections or even dismissed from the party. The current opposition whip is a clear example of a fallout between an MP and top leadership. There have been clear attempts to remove some vocal MPs through the 2019 primaries, but in some cases these attempts have failed.

It is well known that some backbenchers are frustrated from being ‘overlooked’ by the President for Cabinet positions. They are pained by special MPs who have not sweated for the party and are unknown in politics and by new MPs, some of whom are former opposition activists. They perceive this as extremely unfair to them, for they are loyalty to the party and have parliamentary experience. Even worse, some experienced and outspoken ruling party MPs have been systematically and deliberately denied the opportunity to serve on oversight Standing Committees such as the Public Accounts Committee, the Finance and Estimates Committee and the Statutory Bodies Committee.

Some self-styled vocal backbenchers are effectively talking their way into Cabinet. They try to prove their worth in terms of excellence while modulating their criticism with accolades for both the party and its leadership. Some Assistant Ministers are also unhappy with newcomers to both the party and Parliament who have been given plum full minister positions ahead of them. It is also true that some backbenchers are associated with the former administration and consequently not trusted. These ones are unlikely to be promoted or rewarded in any way.

Therefore, the seemingly resultant onslaught by the backbenchers, led by their Chief Whip, will inevitably attract reprimand or sanctions, especially that the ruling party caucus is binding. However, it is unlikely that extreme sanctions such as suspensions and expulsions will be meted out because losing an MP is a big deal. The jury is still out on the posture and performance of the backbench.


Hon Dithapelo Keorapetse