Lesotho goes to the polls on May 26 in a highly contested election that could leave long-serving Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili without a clear majority and force him into an insecure coalition with his rivals.
Fifteen political parties and several independent candidates will fight for the country’s 120 parliamentary seats, although the main battle will be between Mosisili’s newly formed ruling Democratic Congress and his former party, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy, which is now led by Mothetjoa Metsing.
The Democratic Congress was created only in February in a move interpreted as a way for 67-year-old Mosisili to resist a leadership challenge from the younger and more dynamic Metsing, previously the Lesotho Congress for Democracy’s secretary general.
It is the second time that Mosisili – who in 2009 survived an assassination attempt – has formed a new political party in Lesotho, having been a leading figure in the 1998 formation of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy, which broke away from the Basutoland Congress Party.
Third place is likely to go to the All-Basotho Convention, also a congress splinter movement, which was established in 2006 by Tom Thabane, a former foreign affairs and communications minister who has support from the urban labour unions but has struggled to win favour among the large rural population.
The Basotho National Party, the largest remaining strand of the congress movement’s rival, the Nationals, could come in fourth, analysts say, although the field positions remain hard to call until the day of the vote because of no pre-ballot polls.
Praying for peace
So far, the campaign has been lively with noisy insults being thrown from all sides. In April, a violent clash at a Democratic Congress rally in Thetsane left 10 in hospital. It prompted Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who recently visited the kingdom on church business, to pray for peace in a country that has a long history of political violence.Polls in 2002 and 2007 were dogged by fraud allegations and there have already been concerns raised this year, including claims of pro-Demoratic Congress bias at the government-controlled single television channel and the suspension of an electoral officer for allegedly transferring registered voters to a different constituency.
But Hoolo Nyane, the director of Transformation Resource Centre, a leading civil society organisation based in Maseru, said a lot had been done since 2007 to reform the electoral process and he expected things to go smoothly, notwithstanding small logistical issues.
Several international observer missions, including one from the Southern African Development Community led by South Africa’s Deputy Minister of International Co-operation, Ebrahim Ebrahim, and another from the Commonwealth headed by former Malawian president Dr Bakili Muluzi, are already arriving in Lesotho to oversee the final weeks of campaigning.
But although the process may run well, Nyane lamented the focus of the parties and candidates on personalities and their neglect of the policy issues in Lesotho, where 40% of the mostly rural population are classed as “ultra-poor” and close to one in four are living with HIV.
“Most parties are more interested in political rhetoric rather than real debate on the key issues, which I see as Lesotho’s relationship with South Africa, poverty and unemployment and discipline within government. If no one wins a clear majority and the parties are forced into coalition, it will be on personality not policy lines, which could be problematic,” Nyane said.
“Nearly everybody agrees that we need more integration with South Africa in terms of access to jobs, education and even social grants, but in terms of losing our sovereignty, the conversation stops. It is like we want to have our cake and eat it,” said Tsoeu Petlane, an independent political analyst.
Mosisili, whose background is in the more conservative congress movement that historically supported South Africa’s apartheid government, has won few friends in the ANC and relations between the two countries are said to be strained.
If the Lesotho Congress for Democracy does win a majority, or forms a coalition with the All-Basotho Convention, relations are likely to improve, according to Nyane. “It’s an open secret that the ANC does not have a close relationship with Mosisili,” he said.
Another elephant in the Lesotho policy room is acknowledged to be its growing engagement with China and other Asian countries that have taken over the textile sector to exploit favourable export arrangements with the United States under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Chinese companies have built a new Parliament, state library and other public infrastructure and there has been a significant influx of private Chinese traders setting up highly competitive retail networks.
Despite the obvious growing tension between people in Lesotho and Chinese nationals, few parties, except the All-Basotho Convention, have highlighted the issue, a silent acknowledgement perhaps that the Chinese were welcomed under Mosisili and Metsing’s watch.
John Aerni-Flessner, who studied Lesotho’s political history for his PhD and is now an assistant professor of African history at the State University of New York in Cortland, said: “Overall, there are few policy differentials between the parties because most of them are splinters from the same mother parties and they do not have radically divergent views on how best to govern.
“In the case of ordinary people, I see a real cynicism towards politicians and the ability of the government to do anything to bring real or significant change to a country that has a lot of problems regarding service delivery and falling government revenues.”