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Botswana votes as ruling party faces resurgent opposition

A Botswana woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Gaborone during Botswana's general elections . Picture Credit: AFP
A Botswana woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Gaborone during Botswana's general elections . Picture Credit: AFP

Botswana's ruling party faced an unprecedented test against an invigorated opposition as one of Africa's most stable democracies voted in general elections Friday.

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.

"Voting is proceeding well at all centres," electoral commission spokesman Osupile Maroba told AFP.

"There were minor disturbances where some makeshift polling stations were blown away by a storm last night, delaying the start. That has been sorted out."

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.

And many younger people in the town of some 60,000 are less than sentimental about its political links.

"We need to look beyond the history and sentiments and ask ourselves what does all this history mean for us," said Thuto Matswiri a college student.

"Personally it has little significance, considering our present circumstances as residents who live on so little."

Tau Mongwase, an unemployed youth, complained that "change is slow, very slow".

"I think the government is taking care of us but it's not enough. We need jobs. 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.

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