Botswana Goes to the Polls As Ruling Party Faces Surprise Challenge

Polling stations have opened in Botswana as the long-peaceful southern African nation faces what is expected to be its tightest election in history.

Botswana's ruling party and President Mokgweetsi Masisi have been presented with a surprising challenge after former president Ian Khama broke away and announced his support for an opposition coalition.

Khama hand-picked Masisi as his successor when he stepped down last year following two terms in office in the diamond-rich country. But Masisi then moved away from some of Khama's policies, including by loosening restrictions on elephant hunting to appeal to rural voters.

Khama disappointed in party founded by his father

Opposition leaders say their coalition could unseat the ruling party for the first time since independence in 1966. Khama has openly supported the opposition coalition Umbrella for Democratic Change and its presidential candidate, human rights lawyer Duma Boko.

"With their vote they will rewrite the history of this country," a buoyant Boko said, indicating the long lines at a school in the capital, Gaborone. He called the process smooth. His campaign pledges included creating 100,000 jobs in his first year in office and providing free sanitary pads to girls across the country.

Khama said Wednesday he had become "extremely disappointed" with his former party after assuming Masisi would build on its legacy, according to footage posted online by South African broadcaster EWN.

"We've just seen somebody who became drunk on power," Khama asserted. "It's just astonishing."

The election could hinge on whether people support Khama's move. Some in Botswana have criticised the former president's rejection of his own party and suggested that he is trying to extend his influence.

Voting calm

"The good thing we have maintained in Botswana is that people do not fight against one another. People are chatting to each other," said Sam Modise, who arrived at a polling station at 5 a.m. "This helps a lot in terms of maintaining our democracy. If somebody misbehaves, it will be an isolated case."

"My wife and I are not necessarily voting for the same party but it doesn't affect our relationship. She has her own views," he added.

Botswana, with 925,000 registered voters in a population of 2.2 million, is one of Africa's most stable countries.

"I can't complain about anything," said Mosadithebe Gabositwe, a member of the Botswana Electoral Support Network observer mission comprised of local civil society organisations.

Botswana's president earlier this month said he would accept an election loss, while opposition leader Boko was noncommittal and warned against fraud.

Botswana is voting for members of the National Assembly. The party with the most seats forms the government. There is no run-off election.

Election results are expected to be released within two days of the closing of the polls Wednesday evening.

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