/ 20 February 2007

Lesotho ruling party set for poll victory

Lesotho’s ruling party looked certain to win parliamentary election on Tuesday after it beat an unexpected challenge from a new opposition group in the isolated African kingdom plagued by poverty and HIV/Aids.

The Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) had won 49 constituencies out of a total 80 so far, while the main opposition All Basotho Convention (ABC) gained 17, Independent Electoral Commission spokesperson Tuoe Hantsi said on Tuesday.

Although the LCD appeared likely to move into its second decade in power, former LCD insider Thomas Thabane galvanised the political scene in October when he broke away to form the ABC, taking a number of LCD members of Parliament with him.

The move left Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s government with the slimmest of majorities in the 120-member chamber and forced it to call an early election in the mountainous territory dubbed Africa’s ”kingdom in the sky”.

Voters elect 80 MPs using the first-past-the-post system and 40 seats are assigned on the basis of proportional representation, an innovation first used in 2002.

Final results are due this week but more dynamic politics are not expected to ease hardships anytime soon in the country with a history of coups and mutinies.

Lesotho is struggling with drought, unemployment and one of the world’s worst HIV/Aids crises, thought to have infected about one third of adults in the country of 1,8-million people. Its life expectancy is 35 years for men and 38 for women.

With limited resources, the former British protectorate is dependent on the continent’s economic powerhouse South Africa, which completely surrounds it.

Lesotho’s fortunes have waned in recent years, particularly after a new global textile deal in 2005 removed quotas supporting an industry once seen as the kingdom’s future.

Mosisili’s LCD has increasingly been accused of failing to deliver on promises of economic growth and jobs in a country with an unstable political history.

But it remains a powerful political organisation with a strong ability to turn out supporters to vote.

The 1998 election led to riots after the LCD won all but one seat in Parliament and was accused of vote-rigging. South Africa and Botswana intervened with troops to restore order.

Allegations of irregularities resurfaced against the LCD in the run-up to Saturday’s elections, but observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) said after the polls closed there was no sign of irregularities.

Hantsi has said only a few glitches had been reported with some voters not appearing on the voters’ roll but he believed the elections had been free and fair.

In 2002, the LCD won 77 of the 80 directly contested seats, taking 54% of the vote. That election was endorsed as free and fair by international observers but rejected by the opposition as fraudulent. – Reuters