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Botswana Leader Favored in Election

October 16, 1999

GABORONE, Botswana (AP) _ The same party has governed southern Africa’s oldest democracy since independence in 1966, making it an oasis of calm during the region’s turbulent past decades.

That stability was expected to continue today when Botswana’s voters go to the polls for national elections. All indications pointed to a comfortable re-election for economist Festus Mogae, only the third president Botswana has ever known.

Mogae’s Botswana Democratic Party suffered an erosion of support in 1994, when its share of the vote fell 10 percent compared to the previous election and it captured only 27 of 40 seats in the National Assembly. But a makeover in its image and last year’s split in the opposition have opened the possibility of big gains.

The opposition Botswana National Front, which had 13 seats in the assembly, lost 11 when anti-apartheid hero Michael Dingake broke away to form the Botswana Congress party. It is not clear, though, how much popular support falls to Dingake, a former fellow prison inmate of Nelson Mandela at Robben Island, where opponents of white minority rule in South Africa were jailed.

While another election in a largely desert land of 1.5 million people the size of Texas may not resonate like the riveting 1994 vote that ended white minority rule in neighboring South Africa, it is significant to many people. Among them: the management of the De Beers diamond company, whose Botswana operation is the jewel in the company’s crown.

Botswana’s diamonds are considered the highest quality in the world. They account for three-quarters of the country’s export income and nearly a third of gross domestic product.

There are problems, though. Unemployment stands at about 20 percent, and some 40 percent of Botswana’s people live below the poverty line.

Only 460,000 people have registered to vote, about half the eligible voters. The opposition accuses the ruling party of showing increasingly authoritarian tendencies.

``We have been recognized as a shining example of democracy,″ Dingake said. ``Now it appears we are sliding back.″

Scrutiny will fall on the new government for another reason: how it responds to one of the world’s worst AIDS problems. Roughly one in four adults here has the fatal virus, according to U.N. estimates. AIDS deaths have reduced the average life expectancy to 40.

The 71-year-old Dingake has criticized the government for not doing enough to confront the epidemic. He said AIDS is his top priority and has proposed a national commission to coordinate the fight against the disease.

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