Lesotho needs a new electoral system

The 2015 election resulted in the return of former Prime Minister Tom Thabane and the All Basotho Convention. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The 2015 election resulted in the return of former Prime Minister Tom Thabane and the All Basotho Convention. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The 2017 Lesotho election was necessitated by the collapse of the ruling coalition due to a successful no-confidence motion on 1 March. After calls by Members of Parliament for the replacement of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili of the Democratic Congress (DC) party with Monyane Moleleki of the Alliance of Democrats (AD), a splinter party whose defection from the DC in late 2016 led to the motion, Prime Minister Mosisili chose to call snap elections instead.

The scenario appeared to be a repetition of the 2015 elections, following an attempted coup, when the DC had similarly formed a coalition to defeat the incumbent coalition of the All Basotho Congress (ABC) party led by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane.

Symbolic of the frequency of party fragmentation and resultant political instability, 1,365 candidates from 27 political parties vied for the 120 parliamentary seats. The election resulted in the return of former Prime Minister Tom Thabane and the All Basotho Convention (ABC), winning 48 seats, 47 of them in Single Member Districts (SMDs), plus three nullified district elections in which the candidates died prior to the election.
Although lacking an absolute majority, as the party with the highest number of SMD seats, the ABC was invited by King Letsie III to form a government in accordance with Lesotho’s constitution. The inability of the elections to deliver the majority to a single party led to calls for a government of national unity by former Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy. However the ABC under Thabane declared its intention to form a governing coalition with the Alliance of Democrats (9 seats), Basotho National Party (5 seats) and Reformed Congress of Lesotho (1 seat).

To ensure a peaceful election and acceptance of the results, the Independent Electoral Commission created an Electoral Code of Conduct, which was signed by representative from all parties. The elections were declared free and fair by Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission, although it had expressed concerns about the presence of army deployments at polling stations. International observers from the Commonwealth, the African Union, and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) also declared the elections as peaceful, free and fair, merely criticising the political parties’ failure to field female candidates in order to meet the minimum quota of 30% seats for women.

The election can largely be viewed as a disintegration of support for the ruling Democratic Congress which won only 30 seats in June, down from 47. To put in perspective, the ABC only gained two seats (excluding the nullified seats) with a boost in support of 2.72% compared to 2015, whereas the DC vote share dropped by 12.58%.

In terms of district competition, broad patterns resemble that of 2015. The average vote share for the top two candidates at 77.4% mirrors 2015 (77.7) and on average the winner narrowly missed capturing a majority of the district vote (49.3%, 49.8 in 2015). Such patterns are consistent with a mixed member proportional (MMP) system that incentivizes the entrance of smaller parties. Similarly, average district voter turnout differed marginally from the last election (46.8 versus 47.8%). Additional analysis finds that higher turnout rates corresponded with ABC district victories, although this pattern fails to reach statistical significance once controls for whether the ABC had won the district in 2015 is included.

Lesotho uses a one-vote MMP system where district votes are aggregated to fill an additional 40 party list seats via proportional representation rather than allowing citizens a separate party list vote as seen in most mixed systems (e.g. Germany, New Zealand). A cursory view suggests that the one-vote system causes some confusion as nearly 1% of district votes in 2017 were rejected (0.98%), down from 1.37% in 2015. The cause is unclear, although statistical analysis finds that as the number of district candidates increase, rejected ballots decrease, suggesting that supporters of some smaller parties may not have realized that their party failed to run a district candidate, perhaps as part of a coalitional agreement, or intentionally voted for the party nevertheless as a form of protest vote.

Thabane returned from exile in order to be sworn in as Prime Minister on 16th June, two days after the assassination of his estranged wife Dipolelo Thabane by unknown assailants. He announced that the top priority of his government would be restore law and order and restart economic growth.

The peaceful elections and the general acceptance of its results notwithstanding, the political outcomes reveal that the MMP system has yet again thrown up a fractured mandate and may continue to incentivize further party fragmentation. Consequently, the MMP system introduced to prevent the repetition of the 1997-98 political violence that destroyed downtown Maseru, has failed to manufacture the required balance between political representation and effective governance. In light of these findings, SADC efforts to maintain peace and restart development in Lesotho would be more successful if focused on changing the electoral institutions themselves rather than just helping the conducting of elections. After all, elections can be free and fair and still fall short on expectations of representation or governance.

No reform is a cure-all, but a few alterations short of wholesale reform may engender political stability. First, shifting to the more common mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system would increase the likelihood of a single-party majority without leaving the opposition so few seats that they are ineffective, a situation repeatedly seen in Lesotho prior to the implementation of MMP. This move would also allow Lesotho to return to a two-vote system where voters directly choose a district candidate and a party list candidate, and thus should decrease the number of rejected ballots and prevent various means of gaming the MMP system.

Lesotho may also consider discarding the quota system for allocating PR seats for a minimum electoral threshold necessary to receive PR seats (often 5% in mixed systems) as this discourages party fractionalization by encouraging very small parties to either bow out or combine with larger parties. More broadly, parties should announce coalitional plans prior to the election so that voters can more properly gauge expected outcomes.

Timothy S. Rich (@timothysrich) is an Assistant Professor of political science at Western Kentucky University

Vasabjit Banerjee is an Assistant Professor at Mississippi State University and a Research Associate at the University of Pretoria (@vasabjit_b)

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