* Ruling BDP takes lead with 38 national assembly seats
* BDP surpasses 29 seats threshold needed to win general election (Adds reaction, updates final seat numbers, president comment, adds context)
By Brian Benza
GABORONE, Oct 25 (Reuters) - Mokgweetsi Masisi was declared president of Botswana on Friday, retaining his position and the ruling Botswana Democratic Party’s long dominance of power despite a strong opposition challenge in this week’s election.
The BDP surpassed the 29-seat threshold needed in the national assembly to secure the presidency.
“The numbers of parliament seats attained so far by the BDP obliges me to declare Mokgweetsi Masisi as the elected president of Botswana,” Chief Justice Terrence Rannowane said.
Masisi, who has a solid record and is popular with business and farmers, thanked Batswana for voting for his party.
“I’m humbled & honoured that you again entrusted the BDP. As the President of Botswana for the next 5 years, I’m blessed & privileged to serve you & promise that I’ll continue to do so with integrity, compassion, humility & honesty,” he said on Twitter.
The BDP has ruled Botswana since independence from Britain in 1966 and the country has enjoyed stability and prosperity based on its diamond resources.
But Wednesday’s election posed its first genuine challenge in its five decades in power after former president and political heavyweight Ian Khama fell out with Masisi, his hand-picked successor, and backed the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC).
However, UDC leader Duma Boko failed to put an end to BDP rule. By Friday morning, BDP had secured 38 of the national assembly’s 57 seats.
“After the previous regime almost killed this party and we performed poorly in 2014, this result is a strong vote of confidence in Masisi and his intentions to transform people’s lives,” said Kagiso Mmutle, a BDP supporter outside a counting centre in Gaborone.
The UDC, secured 15 seats while the Botswana Patriotic Front won three and the Alliance for Progressive only one, according to the state broadcaster. In the 2014 election, the BDP had 37 seats.
The Southern African Development Community observers declared the election free and fair on Friday.
“Our manifesto was the best among all the parties with measurable targets. I am really disappointed by the results but I think our association with former president Khama caused us problems,” said Phemelo Boikanyo, a dejected UDC supporter who was still wearing his Vote Boko t-shirt at a mall in Gaborone.
The BDP will now have to move swiftly to transform the economy. Since independence, the economy has grown at 8% a year to become one of Africa’s most successful but it is now at risk of coming unstuck because of over-reliance on diamonds.
GDP growth is projected to slow to 4.3% in 2019, from 4.5% last year, and the economy remains vulnerable to swings in diamond prices and output
The main concerns for the people are unemployment at about 20% and stark inequalities despite equitable state spending on health and education. To tackle either, Masisi will need to do more to diversify the economy.
During a pre-election debate, Masisi said his party wanted to create more sustainable jobs, improve the quality of education to prepare youths for employment, and to provide better healthcare.
He has also promised to tackle corruption, such as making the declaration of assets obligatory for public sector officials. (Writing by Nqobile Dludla, Editing by Angus MacSwan)