/ 15 February 2007

Lesotho to vote amid Aids, poverty crises

The tiny kingdom of Lesotho, one of Africa’s most isolated and poorest countries, holds elections on Saturday, with the ruling party facing its toughest challenge in a decade amid the worsening twin crises of Aids and poverty.

Political analysts expect a mostly peaceful vote in the mountainous country entirely surrounded by South Africa, but say the race is still too close to call.

Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), which has ruled the constitutional monarchy since 1998, faces a new party led by former communications minister Thomas Thabane, once an LCD insider.

Thabane’s All Basotho Convention (ABC) has campaigned hard to highlight what it says are the LCD’s failures to address Lesotho’s many problems, chief among them widespread poverty and an HIV/Aids crisis deemed among the worst in the world.

About one in three adults in Lesotho are estimated to be infected with the Aids virus, leaving the country struggling to provide health care and dealing with growing numbers of children whose parents have been killed by the disease.

Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) says the election campaign has sparked a rush of new voter registrations, with at least 120 000 of the more than 900 000 registered voters signing up since November.

”The IEC’s voter education campaign and the new party have really brought about a new vigour in these elections,” IEC spokesperson Truoe Hantsi said.

Lesotho has had political violence in the past. After polls in 1998 resulted in vote-rigging claims against the LCD, South Africa and Botswana intervened with troops to restore order.

Waning fortunes

The country has seen its fortunes wane in recent years, particularly after a new global textile deal in 2005 removed quotas supporting an industry once seen as the kingdom’s future.

On the streets of the capital, Maseru, a city less than 5km from the South African border, election talk boiled down to whether Thabane’s four-month-old party would take the mantle from Mosisili.

”It is time for change; things cannot carry on as before. Even if the ABC does not win these elections, at least Thabane has reinvigorated the people of this country,” said a man at a Maseru hotel tavern, who gave his name as Mokhutu.

Thabane’s ABC was formed last October when 18 members of the LCD crossed the floor to form the new group, leaving the ruling party with 61 seats in Lesotho’s 120-member Parliament.

Mosisili, fearing a total collapse of the LCD government, asked King Letsie III one month later to dissolve the Parliament, setting in motion an election timetable that required new parliamentary elections to be held within 90 days.

While the LCD has been widely criticised for failing to deliver on promises of job creation, economic growth and the battle against HIV/Aids, it has urged voters to back it with plans to increase old-age pensions and expand free education.

The party also has a formidable national network, which the ABC may find difficult to match, analysts say.

Political scientist Fako Likoti of the National University of Lesotho said the poll could nevertheless see voters opt to change their government — a relative rarity in Southern Africa, where in most countries the electorate remains fiercely loyal to liberation-era political parties. — Reuters