Gaborone, Botswana - Botswana's ruling party faces the tightest election of its history on Wednesday after former President Ian Khama, annoyed with his hand-picked successor, announced his support for the opposition, shaking up one of Africa's most stable countries.
The influential Khama, son of founding President Seretse Khama, withdrew his support after current President Mokgweetsi Masisi broke with some of his policies, including by loosening restrictions on elephant hunting in an apparent bid to appeal to rural voters.
Some Botswanan analysts say Khama defected from his own Botswana Democratic Party because Masisi challenged his control of the party, which has been in power since independence in 1966, and targeted some Khama allies in an anti-corruption drive.
"There is now a growing recognition that Masisi, who has been in office for barely a year, must be given a chance to rule. The Khama effect is slowly beginning to fade," said Leonard Sesa, senior politics lecturer at the University of Botswana.
Khama stepped down last year following two terms in office after positioning former deputy Masisi to take over the diamond-rich, landlocked nation that lies north of South Africa. Khama later decided to openly support the opposition coalition Umbrella for Democratic Change and its presidential candidate, human rights lawyer Duma Boko.
Botswana, with 925,000 registered voters in a population of 2.2 million, has enjoyed stability and peaceful elections for more than 50 years. Masisi in a presidential debate this month said he would accept an election loss, while Boko was noncommittal.
In an opinion piece for Foreign Policy magazine earlier this month, Boko warned that Masisi and his supporters "will chip away at Botswana's reputation as a democratic success story in Africa."