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Basotho go to the polls with yet another unstable coalition in prospect

Basotho go to the polls with yet another unstable coalition in prospect
The Lesotho flag painted on a wall forms a backdrop at the Maseru Methodist Primary School as preparations are made for the Lesotho elections on Friday, 7 October 2022. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Lesotho goes to the polls on Friday to elect a new government, with another messy and unstable coalition likely to be the outcome, once again.

Lesotho’s failure to implement critical reforms designed to stabilise the country’s chronically turbulent politics suggests it will be politics as usual after the votes have all been counted.

The one new feature is the new Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) party just launched by businessman Sam Matekane — reputed to be a billionaire. He has been promising a new style of politics and drawing large crowds to his flashy rallies, creating expectations that he could pull off an upset victory over the traditional parties.

lesotho elections iec

A man converses with an electoral official during registration for polling station officers at the Maseru Methodist Primary School, as preparations are made ahead for the the elections on Friday, 7 October 2022. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

However, the RFP has not been around long enough to feature in opinion polls so it is not clear how Matekane and the RFP will do.

On Thursday, large parts of the capital Maseru were gridlocked as many residents rushed to get back to their rural villages to cast their votes in the country’s constituency system. It was a nightmare to navigate through the city, one South African visitor said. He noted that unlike in South Africa, there were no posters visible advertising the candidates and there was no feeling of elections in the air.

Basildon Peta, publisher of the Lesotho Times, told Daily Maverick that though more than 50 parties are fielding candidates, the victor is likely to be one of four main parties — the RFP, the older Democratic Congress (DC) lead by Mathibeli Mokhothu, the current ruling party, the All Basotho Convention (ABC) led by former finance minister Nkaku Kabi or the Basotho Action Party (BAP) — a breakaway from the ABC led by Nqosa Mahao.

lesotho elections

Registration opens for polling station officers at the Maseru Methodist Primary School. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The RFP has been winning support with its message of consigning Lesotho’s tired and fractious old political parties to history. It has also been drawing the biggest crowds to its rallies, but Peta cautions that Matekane has been “renting” some of his big crowds with gimmicks such as DJs and gifts and so this participation may not all translate into votes.

He also notes that the RFP has been riven by internal tensions over its selection of candidates, which led to messy court cases. The ABC has also been undermined by internal splits and tensions. Current Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro was recently ousted as ABC leader by Kabi and is retiring from politics.

lesotho iec

Boxes filled with Lesotho’s IEC material ready to be transported to polling stations from the Maseru Methodist Primary School. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Peta thinks the winner will be between the RFP and DC. He favours the DC because of its greater internal coherence with no major splits as in the other main parties. He notes that Matekane has said he wants to win a clear majority of at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Parliament so he can govern unencumbered by coalition partners. But Peta suspects the end result is likely to be a coalition as usual, anyway.

This is partly because of Lesotho’s uniquely complicated mixed constituency and proportional representation (PR) electoral system which tends to favour smaller parties in the allocation of PR votes.

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Peta noted that the last opinion poll forecast a victory for the DC with 42% of the vote — but that was before the RFP had been established so its support has not been properly gauged yet.

After years of protracted and painful negotiations, Lesotho politicians finally agreed earlier this year on a series of reforms to stabilise the political system which over the past eight years has been racked by unstable coalitions and the sometimes violent interference of the security agencies in politics.

Parliament had agreed to pass the reform bills by June, but failed to do so. Prime Minister Majoro then declared a State of Emergency so he could call a special session of Parliament to enact the reforms. But the Constitutional Court threw out the measure.

The reforms would have improved stability, for instance by barring floor crossing and stipulating that a prime minister might only be removed from office by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

The reforms were also intended to depoliticise the bureaucracy by giving Parliament and not the executive, the power to appoint senior officials.

The parties contesting Friday’s election have pledged to endorse the reforms if they are elected, but this remains to be seen. Some observers note that the lack of a bar on floor crossing could allow Matekane in particular to buy the extra MPs needed to form a majority.

Peta notes that the election campaign has been peaceful so far and he expects the election itself to remain so. Several observer groups are in the country, including the first major European Union (EU) mission. The EU has supported the reform process.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), recently noted that South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) had also been pushing hard for the reforms to be passed by Parliament before the elections.

Aborted coup

SADC, with Pretoria in the lead, had played the key role in mediating the reforms which were inspired by an aborted coup in August 2014, which forced then Prime Minister Tom Thabane to flee to South Africa. South African forces escorted him back to Lesotho a few days later and then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was appointed as SADC’s special envoy to broker what turned out to be a protracted reform initiative, interrupted by several assassinations, including that of a former and a serving head of the defence force.

In Maseru on Thursday, Moorosi Chaltin Tsa Tsa Nyane, a businessman and founding member of the ABC, told Daily Maverick he was running for election to Parliament for the first time, “to go and represent all the kids and homeless people. Try to be the voice of the voiceless.

“I am just hoping to save lives and see all these old generational politicians go out of the system because they really have some hatred in them because of the occurrences that happened to date. So we are actually trying to put hope into the new people who are not aware of the old fights.”

Nyasa said he believed that Basotho had lost interest in politics because of all the past infighting and he hoped to inspire more people to participate in politics.

“We are business people who ended up being interested in politics to see change and there is a lot of the young generation… I could say we are influencers to most of the young generation of the country.” DM


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