Leading article: The merits of a strong opposition

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The Independent Online

It is to be hoped that the opposition gets more seats in today's elections in Botswana than in previous years. This is not because the incumbent, President Seretse Khama, is not a good thing. He runs perhaps the most politically and economically stable country in Africa – and took over mid-term, after being vice-president, in a smooth transition of power in a country where every election since independence has been deemed free and fair. He is one of the few African leaders to have spoken out against Robert Mugabe's state-sponsored violence in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

But Botswana has a weak opposition. The ruling party, which has been in power for 43 years, won 44 of 57 seats in the last election. And President Khama looks fairly unassailable. As well as being a long-standing player in a rare African success story – Botswana is less corrupt than Italy, let alone the rest of Africa – he is the son of Botswana's founding father as well as chief of the country's largest tribe.

Yet if he is hugely popular with the rural poor the urban elite dislikes his autocratic style. They are disturbed by the military-style discipline demanded by this Sandhurst-trained former head of the national army. He has slapped a 30 per cent tax on alcohol and restricted opening hours for bars and night clubs. When he took office he immediately sacked everyone in the cabinet he felt was not wholeheartedly behind him. He pushes through directives without consulting ministers. He has set up a costly Directorate of Intelligence Services which critics fear is a potential tool for suppressing dissent; deaths in police custody have since increased, from three to eight a year.

A stronger opposition would be good for democracy. Botswana is the world's biggest diamond producer. Recession has reduced global demand for the gems, forcing its mines to their first shutdown in 40 years. The economy shrank by 20 percent in the first quarter of this year forcing Botswana deep into debt. Further contractions are predicted before things pick up in 2011. It has all brought home the importance of diversifying the economy, a task on which even Botswana's capable economic managers have dragged their feet. A firm hand is needed on the tiller, but one critiqued by a competent opposition.