Amid turmoil of southern Africa, Botswana democracy is tested

With much of Africa giving way to the expedients of military rule and single-party states, Botswana has demonstrated that when properly nurtured, democracy can flourish on the continent.

There was little doubt that President Quett Masire and his ruling Botswana Democratic Party would win Saturday's vote. It was the process that counted most to many observers. For months, five political parties had waged open and vigorous campaigns with all sides committed to honoring the choice of the electorate.

For Botswana, a landlocked country smack in the middle of turbulent southern Africa, it was the fourth democratic election since the country's independence from Britain in 1966.

President Masire and his party were returned to office with a decisive majority, winning 29 of the 34 seats in Parliament.

However, the political opposition was strengthened. The main opposition, the left-leaning Botswana National Front won four seats, doubling the two seats it has held since the last election. The Botswana People's Party won a single seat. An estimated 70 percent of the registered voters went to the polls.

Many analysts saw this election as a crucial test of democracy in Botswana. It was the first electoral test of President Masire, who assumed office when Sir Seretse Khama died in 1980. Khama had strong popular allegiance - partly because he was a hereditary chief - when he took the reins of newly independent Botswana in 1966.

Masire on the other hand is a ''commoner'' in tribal terms. But the results suggest he has gained popular support in his own right.

Masire will need all the support he can muster to maintain the political tranquility and economic prosperity since independence. Botswana has a relatively free economy and its government is regarded as pro-Western.

Botswana, like most of southern Africa, is in its third year of drought. The rate of urbanization in Gaborone, the country's capital and main city, is rising. And general unemployment and underemployment are growing, say economists.

Regionally, Botswana remains vulnerable to turmoil on its borders. The biggest question is how far South Africa will go in trying to force its northern neighbor into signing a nonaggression pact. Pretoria is clearly pressing for this and has a number of ways of tightening the screws on Botswana, which imports 85 percent of its goods from South Africa, is heavily dependent on foreign investment from South Africa, and is part of a customs union with South Africa.

Pretoria wants the pact to formally exclude the African National Congress from any military bases in Botswana from which to operate against South Africa.

Masire has rejected the need for any such agreement with Pretoria. Most independent analysts see no evidence that the ANC has a military presence in Botswana.

Botswana's other borders are also potential trouble spots. To its west lies Namibia, the site of ongoing guerrilla war. To its east is Zimbabwe where tribal conflict has sent some ''refugees'' into eastern Botswana.

The most glaring problem facing Botswana is what one analyst calls the ''tremendous disparity'' between rich and poor. While most all Botswanans have become better off since independence, the gap between rich and poor has also grown, economists say.

Besides being an exporter of beer, Botswana is also a major diamond producer. Diamond mining since the early '70s is credited with the country's rapid expansion.

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