/ 17 February 2007

Lesotho gears up for close poll fight

The leader of Lesotho’s new opposition party was confident on Friday of turfing his old colleagues out of power ahead of an election in Southern Africa’s mountain kingdom pundits 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 nine-year rule. He is challenging Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, who has 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 country to ensure its fourth poll since independence takes place without incident.

The campaign was peaceful, but analysts say the contest would 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.”

The prime minister’s camp was also in upbeat mood a day ahead of the vote with the LCD’s general secretary Mpho Malie telling Agence France-Presse: ”We are looking forward to tomorrow [Saturday].”

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 reasons 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.

Newspapers were nervous about forecasting the outcome with the Mopheme-Survivor weekly declaring that it ”very difficult to predict who will win the election 2007”.

‘No improvement’

In Makhaleng, about 50km south of Maseru, villagers were split about who would get their support.

A group of women seated outside a corrugated iron stall insisted they would stick with Mosisili who had provided free primary education, pension money and looked after orphans.

Nearby a shepherd wrapped in a traditional Basotho blanket with a woollen hat pulled over his head just smiled and said ”Mosisili” when asked where his support lay.

However 21-year-old Rampolai Haatsane admitted he had been drawn in by Thabane’s promise to wipe out poverty.

”There has been no improvement in our country since Mosisili was in government. The supporters of ABC are many, we all want work,” he said.

Five polling officers in a derelict classroom at St Johns High School perched on a hill overlooking the mountainous area, sat waiting for ballot boxes, ballot papers and the voters roll.

As evening approached ballot boxes were still being delivered to the constituencies, while extra security personnel and police officers were deployed to nearly 3 000 police stations, election commission spokesperson Rethabile Pholo said.

Much of Lesotho, landlocked by South Africa, still depends on subsistence agriculture, while those who have salaried jobs take home on average less than a $1 000 a year.

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

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 most free and fair since the former British protectorate secured independence in 1966. – Sapa-AFP