Lesotho: A new era?

Lesotho: A new era?
  • PublishedApril 3, 2015

The quaint and peaceful Kingdom of Lesotho has a new leader, after a closely-fought election brought in Pakalitha Mosilili as president. Simon Allison reports from Maseru. 

‘Lesotho has new leader’ screamed South Africa’s The Times, shortly after Pakalitha Mosisili announced himself as head of a new governing coalition in early March. It was a disingenuous headline. If Mosisili has novelty value, then it is only in comparison to Africa’s longest ruling presidents. He has already governed Lesotho for 14 years, and this will be his fourth term.

Nonetheless, it’s a fresh start for the veteran politician. Mosisili was only unseated at the 2012 polls when Thomas Thabane, his colleague-turned-nemesis, cobbled together a ruling coalition – despite Mosisili winning the popular vote.

Thabane, however, overplayed his hand when he extended his vigorous anti-corruption drive to his coalition partners, ensnaring Deputy Prime Minister and Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) leader Mothetjoa Metsing in the process last year. Metsing is still fighting the charges in court. Thabane also fell out with the Lesotho Defence Force’s leadership, reportedly still loyal to Mosisili, when he tried to install his men.

SADC mediation

The result was a constitutional crisis and protests on the streets of the capital Maseru, with army units occupying police stations and Thabane fleeing for his life into neighbouring South Africa. Under a mandate from the South African Development Community (SADC), South Africa stepped in to calm the situation and mediate a settlement between the warring politicians and security branches. With Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa leading several rounds of talks and the South African Police Services guaranteeing Thabane’s personal safety, a deal to hold snap elections was reached.

It was these elections that Mosisili won. Having spent less than three years in opposition,
he is back in the top job – which was, analysts suspect, the whole point of the preceding political instability.

Election observer missions from the African Union, led by Raila Odinga, the Commonwealth, led by Festus Mogae, and SADC, led by Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, declared the elections free and fair. At 47%, turnout was lower than anticipated and a consequence of the rains which turned election day into a washout in much of the country.

All parties publicly committed to maintaining peace and  interactions between rival politicians were jocular as South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa flew in and out of  the capital Maseru to, according to some observers, “keep an eye on things.” Ramaphosa’s presence should not be underestimated for many reasons apart from the fact that Lesotho is completely encircled by South Africa.

In 1998, South Africa deployed 700 troops to Lesotho to quell rioting following a disputed election and the troops ended up  staying in their tiny neighbour for seven months.

This time round, it took several days for the votes to be counted, with the final announcement held up by the difficulty of transporting ballot boxes from Lesotho’s more rural, mountainous areas.

But the outcome of the 2015 polls contained a few shocks. Lesotho’s parliament has 120 seats – 80 are elected by constituencies, with an additional 40 topping them up to make the results proportional. Metsing and his LCD suffered a dramatic decline in support, winning just two constituency seats, down from 12.

Another surprise was Thabane’s equally dramatic surge in popularity, with his All Basotho Convention (ABC) securing 40 constituency seats, compared to just 26 last time round. This is a sign that his party is becoming a genuinely national movement, expanding out of its traditional urban strongholds.

“The ABC is unlikely to have the benefit of incumbency or of Thabane at the helm the next time Lesotho goes to the polls, but this election has ensured that the country’s population will remain a relevant force in Lesotho’s politics for the foreseeable future,” said Charles Fogelman, a Lesotho expert and research fellow at the University of Illinois.

But while this may have been closer than anticipated, Mosisili still won the popular vote, albeit by the narrowest of margins: 218,573 votes for the Democratic Congress (DC), compared to 215,022 for ABC, a difference of just 3,551 votes. Once the proportional representation seats were allocated and added to the constituency seats already won, this translated to DC edging ABC by 47 seats to 46. It took a coalition of five other parties for Mosisili to collect the 61 seats necessary to form a government.

“These leaders sitting here are going to bring change to Lesotho. In democracy, we say the people are always right, just like customers in a business; even when they are wrong, they are still right,” said a rather cryptic Mosisili at the press conference announcing the new coalition.

New era?

All agree that change is necessary, but it’s far from clear whether these elections – supposed to herald a new dawn for Lesotho – will bring improved change, both politically and economically.

First, there is that old, familiar face in State House. Mosisili has already had 14 years to improve the country’s economic and social indicators. It is unclear whether a further mandate will bring more success than the previous three.

Second, there is another delicately-balanced coalition government, difficult to manage and susceptible to fracture. Will Mosisili really be able to keep all four minor parties happy for the next five years? Will he be able to pass legislation reliably? Or will he too fall victim to motions of no confidence when someone decides to cross the floor? All this raises more questions about the country’s electoral system in general. With no party likely to win an outright majority in the legislature in the near future, should Lesotho look at electing its executive directly, rather than through parliament? And then there is also the issue of reform, or lack of, in the military and the police.  But above all this looms the shadow of Lesotho’s giant neighbour – South Africa.

“The country is so economically dependent on South Africa that the only centre of power is government. This encourages coalitions of convenience and even corruption rather than good governance and condemns Lesotho to more of the same for the foreseeable future,” read an opinion in one South African newspaper reporting on the elections.

Will Lesotho suffer from more of the same? No one can tell. But the country has not succumbed to a military coup and political tensions did not degenerate into conflict. For now, the Basotho people have stability and with Mosisili back in State House, some may say, at least they have brought back “the devil they know.”

Written By
Simon Allison

Simon Allison is a senior reporter for the Daily Maverick. He can be found tweeting @simonallison

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