/ 17 February 2007

Tight contest likely in Lesotho poll

Voters in Lesotho, one of Africa’s poorest and most Aids-ridden countries, started voting on Saturday with the ruling party trying to fend off a fierce challenge from one of its old leading lights.

The streets of the capital Maseru were empty apart from the polling stations where voters queued up to cast their ballots.

About 500 people waited patiently in line at a Maseru High School and similar numbers were seen at another polling station. Some said they had queued since 4am.

”I feel excited that I am going to vote today. What is important is that we need change and we want to choose a government that will listen to the people,” said 34-year-old Tsepang Makakole.

There are about 920 000 registered voters in the tiny Southern African mountain kingdom and observers are expecting a strong turnout with interest heightened by the recent formation of the All Basotho Congress (ABC) by former foreign minister Tom Thabane.

Thabane, once regarded as heir apparent to Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, is confident of turfing his former colleagues in the Lesotho Congress of Democracy (LCD) out of office after thousands flocked to his rallies.

Most pundits however have held off predicting the winner with a general consensus that Mosisili has clawed back some of the momentum generated by the ABC after its launch in October last year.

Thabane has been campaigning on a relentlessly populist ticket, promising to wage war on poverty, hunger, corruption and disease.

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.

Thabane is seen to have the support of the young working class, while Mosisili can rely on backing from elder voters and those in rural constituencies.

‘I need change’

Mamorakabimo Moraka (69) said it was time for a change.

”I feel happy that once again I have this chance to vote, I first voted in 1965. I want to vote because I need change, change that will bring development to out country,” she told Agence France-Presse.

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 R7 165 ($1 000) a year.

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

There was no visible military or army presence on Saturday in the mountain kingdom which was plunged into violence during the 1998 election over disputed results, when South Africa and Botswana had to step in to quell tensions.

Each of the 2 500 polling stations is manned by three police officers.

Fusi Maseru, the presiding officer at a polling station in the capital’s Methodist High School, said: ”I hope everything will go peacefully … as you can see people are waiting patiently in queues.”

Thabane and Mosisili were expected to cast their votes later in the morning at their respective constituencies. – Sapa-AFP