Technically, they shouldn’t have been there. Certainly the election officials weren’t expecting them.
But there they were all the same: small groups of soldiers lingering on the edges of Lesotho’s snap poll on Saturday.
After Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s ruling coalition collapsed and he lost a no-confidence vote in March, the country was now voting for the third time in five years.
And the sense of déjà vu was palpable, the major players all unchanged since the last poll just two years ago.
Facing off were Mosisili of the Democratic Congress (DC) and his comrade-turned-rival Thomas Thabane, leader of the All Basotho Convention (ABC).
Former allies, they’d served in the same Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) for years before both breaking away to form acronyms of their own.
Whatever Saturday’s tally, the result was expected to be more or less the same: a government held together by the will of small but powerful coalition parties.
The difference? A Thabane win would carry with it the potential for the prosecution of those behind the 2014 coup attempt that turned the then-prime minister into a South African exile.
As the election drew nearer, Thabane’s victory was being confidently touted by analysts.
And then there they were: clusters of armed fatigues hovering outside voting stations.
“Nobody informed us they would be here,” one station manager told Daily Maverick on Saturday.
“Have you talked to them?”
She glanced in their direction, ever so slightly: “No.”
For their part, the soldiers seemed willing to chat. They were young, they were bored and – outside one voting station in particular – they were slouched back on plastic chairs in the shade.
One soldier said they were “assisting” the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). If so, it was help the IEC never asked for.
“The nation, the voters and even the observers were surprised,” commission spokesman Tuoe Hantši later told reporters. “They felt that some voters were intimidated.”
The voters that showed up, at least.
The IEC had set an ambitious target of an 85% voter turnout – a target not only more than double that of the 2015 vote, but one never reached in the country’s history.
After two snap elections in just three years, Lesotho was at rock bottom, voter Mary Bosiu said: “I think we’ve had it as a nation.”
But fresh from casting her ballot, the 61-year-old declared she had never felt as passionately about an election before.
“This one is the real deal,” she told Daily Maverick. “The desire, the passion to come out and vote – you can feel it.”
Tumisang Mabetha, 50, said the fact the he was once again queuing to vote showed Lesotho had a flawed understanding of how democracy should work.
Still, he waved his driver’s licence furiously and insisted he would exercise his right to vote, “even if it happens every year”.
“I know other people have got the opinion that it’s a waste of time to vote after every two years, but for me, no, I must go out and vote.”
By Sunday, whatever intimidation may have hung in the air the day before seemed to have dissipated.
The city was busy, the traffic thick and slow. ABC logos flashed by on T-shirts and car bonnets while vote tallies droned in over radios. The final results wouldn’t be known for days, but in one constituency just outside the city, a pavement celebration was already under way.
The soldiers were nowhere to be seen. DM
Photo: Maseru, By Paul via Flickr
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas