After Lesotho’s last election opposition supporters rejected the outcome, brought the government to its knees and torched much of Maseru.
Is there a risk of similar upheavals when the Basotho go to the polls on May 25?
The 1998 election was run under the same “first-past-the-post” electoral system that, five years earlier, saw the Basutoland Congress Party (BCP) sweep to power by winning all 65 constituencies.
The result was bitterly contested by the Basotho National Party (BNP), which had ruled by dictatorship before being overthrown by a South African-backed military coup.
Although the 1993 election result was declared free and fair by observers, the BNP could not accept the depth of its unpopularity and egged Lesotho’s king into suspending the Constitution and dismissing the new BCP government in mid-1994.
When the army applauded, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe rattled their swords and rapidly cajoled the monarch into reappointing the BCP government. But the BNP’s resentment at its exclusion from power continued to fester.
By the 1998 election the BCP had split. Embodying Lesotho’s radical anti-colonial tradition, it had been led since its founding in the 1950s by Ntsu Mokhehle. By the late 1990s, Mokhehle was aged and ailing and the BCP was torn by succession disputes.
When these culminated in Mokhehle losing control of the BCP party machinery in late 1997, he outmanouevred his rivals by using his majority support among sitting MPs to form a new party, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), which became the new ruling party.
The LCD won all but one of the 80 seats being contested, but the BCP was as disbelieving as the BNP had been in 1993. The two bitter enemies formed an opportunistic coalition to challenge the result. The outcome was the military intervention by South Africa, with Botswana in a supporting role, conducted on behalf of the region.
A repeat of this troubled scenario is unlikely in May. After its military intervention, South Africa brokered a compromise between the feuding parties. This allowed the LCD to remain in power, but alongside an interim political authority comprising all 12 political parties that fought the election.
The interim authority would devise a new electoral system in time for a further election by April 2000.
The negotiation process was tortuous and the timetable unrealistic. But by late 1999 the interim authority and the LCD government had agreed on a new electoral system combining first-past-the-post with proportional representation (PR). And a new timetable was proposed that would see a new independent electoral commission appointed by May 2000 and elections held by May this year.
The combined electoral system – which will retain the existing 80 constituency seats but supplement them with 40 PR seats – will ensure that there is no repeat of the 1993 and 1998 election results that saw the exclusion of opposition parties from Parliament.
Also vital to legitimising the result will be the thorough preparations made by the electoral commission. A computerised voters’ roll has been drawn up and made available to all parties. Voters will only be able to vote on presentation of a voter registration card. Ballot boxes will be transparent and results will be announced in the constituencies before being sent to a European Union-financed national election results centre.
Despite the electoral reforms, the political scene remains fragile. A split in the ruling LCD saw the departure from the government of Deputy Prime Minister Kelebone Maope and his formation of the Lesotho People’s Congress (LPC) late last year. Maope took 27 MPs with him. The BCP has again divided down the middle, while the BNP – led by former military leader Justin Lekhanya – is also divided.
A repeat victory for the LCD, now led by Pakalitha Mosisili, looks likely as the party continues to enjoy popular support. But this time round it will face opposition in Parliament.
There will be enormous pressure on opposition parties to accept the result. Lesotho’s major donors have all made it clear that they regard this election as the country’s “last chance”. But perhaps most importantly, neither South Africa nor the Southern African Development Community will allow Lesotho to become another Zimbabwe.