/ 16 February 2007

Security tight in Lesotho for close election battle

The leader of Lesotho’s newly formed opposition party expressed confidence on Friday of turfing his old colleagues out of office on the eve of an election that pundits have found too close to call.

Former foreign minister Tom Thabane, who only formed the All Basotho Congress (ABC) in October after walking out of the Cabinet, called time on the Lesotho Congress for Democracy’s (LCD) nine-year rule as Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili demanded a third term to tackle dire poverty.

As electoral officials put ballot boxes in place for Saturday’s election, security was tightened across the Southern African nation to ensure its fourth poll since independence takes place without incident.

The campaign was mainly peaceful, but analysts say the contest on polling day will be tight as Mosisili and the LCD struggle to counter a populist ABC ticket that promises to tackle poverty, hunger, disease and corruption.

Thabane, making a final trip to rally support in his constituency to the south of the capital, Maseru, called for a large turnout from all sides. ”Our people must go the polls in large numbers and members of my party in even larger numbers,” he said. ”This is the year to win the elections; it’s our time.”

While there were no reliable opinion polls, Thabane would have been buoyed on Friday by a forecast in the weekly Public Eye newspaper that predicted the ABC would win 41 of the 120 seats in Parliament against 31 for the LCD.

Another newspaper, the Mopheme-The Survivor, found ”the LCD has made a huge comeback, which probably also surprised its leadership. They are definitely still a power to consider.”

Mosisili has been pointing to economic indicators, such as inflation running at about 5% and a predicted 3,5% economic growth in the coming year, as reason why he should get more time to tackle deep-rooted problems.

”Speeding up delivery services, economic growth and fighting of poverty are key in our manifesto,” the premier said in comments carried by Lesotho media on Friday.

Much of Lesotho, landlocked by South Africa, still depends on subsistence agriculture, while those who have salaried jobs take home on average less than about R7 200 a year.

The scourge of HIV/Aids has also proved a major handicap to development, with about 30% of the population of getting on for two million affected by the disease.

The prime minister’s camp was also in upbeat mood on Friday with the LCD’s general secretary, Mpho Malie, saying: ”We are looking forward to tomorrow.”

Disputed election results in 1998 triggered large-scale protests that were eventually quashed with the intervention of soldiers from South Africa and Botswana.

However, the subsequent elections in 2002 were regarded as the freest and fairest since the former British protectorate secured independence in 1966.

A spokesperson for the Lesotho mounted police said they were ”more than ready” for when voting starts at 7am on Saturday, and there had been no reports of violence.

Ballot papers were being distributed to the constituencies, while extra security personnel and police were deployed to nearly 3 000 police stations that will serve as polling stations, election commission spokesperson Rethabile Pholo said.

Pholo added that three helicopters were due from South Africa to assist the military in transporting ballot boxes and security material to remote areas in the kingdom, 80% of which is only accessible on foot or horseback. — Sapa-AFP