Political branding in Botswana and Malawi: electoral competition and the welfare agenda, 1994-2014

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Following the end of colonial rule in several southern African states, national leadership passed largely to neoliberal and patrimonial governments that proceeded to dominate the political landscape. Despite the widespread poverty that characterised much of post-colonial Africa, these governments did little to expand welfare spending beyond what colonial administrations had provided. Endemic poverty, however, has forced ruling-party governments to change tack as opposition parties in more recent years have emerged to challenge their leadership. In two such countries - Botswana and Malawi - heightened electoral competition has accompanied the efforts of presidential incumbents to demonstrate new public commitments to poverty reduction through shifts in rhetoric, symbolism, and policy emphasis. I argue that incumbents have pursued this "branding" with respect to poverty reduction in order to effectuate greater voter support for their incumbency and party. The Botswana Democratic Party has ruled uninterrupted in Botswana since independence, but opposition parties have made significant inroads during recent elections. In the midst of this heightened political competition, President Ian Khama (2008- ) has sought to increase support for the party by remarketing the country's employment-based programmes to serve new governmental objectives around employment and poverty reduction. Khama's rebranding of public employment programmes (PEPs), especially the Ipelegeng Programme, has allowed government to target underserved beneficiary groups such as the urban poor, and provided more reliable incomes to out-of-work Batswana in rural areas. Critically, the rebranding of social protection programmes has resulted in their being publicly associated more with Khama himself than with government. Public displays of empathy for the conditions of the poor moreover, as manifested during Khama's visits to disadvantaged areas, reinforced the president's image as a poverty-sensitive leader. These programmatic and non-programmatic measures have together defined Khama's social protection 'brand'; or the public emphasis that the president has placed on his social protection agenda. For their part, opposition leaders have branded themselves around a "social-democratic" approach to poverty reduction. Since the 1990s, ruling and opposition parties have converged in their social protection ideologies as the BDP has "counterbranded" in response to electoral competition by adopting opposition policy ideas. Khama's branding around personalised PEPs, in conclusion, generated strong support for himself among the rural poor especially owing to popular preferences for low-wage work over cash transfers. Analysis of Afrobarometer survey data shows that Khama's branding was insufficient to maintain the BDP vote, as the party's poor performance in the 2014 election confirmed. Both Malawian presidents between 2004 and 2014, Bingu wa Mutharika and Joyce Banda, established new political parties while in office and opted to "brand" them as prioritising poverty reduction. These brands - which had programmatic, rhetorical, and symbolic components - allowed Mutharika and Banda the possibility of achieving a broader national appeal, whereas presidential elections before 2009 had been decided on the basis of regional patronage networks.