Lesotho votes in closely fought 3-way race

2012-05-24 09:03
Maseru - Tiny Lesotho votes on Saturday in the most hotly contested election since Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili came to power in a 1998 vote that sparked rioting and a South African military intervention.

After 14 years in power, Mosisili has established himself as a towering figure in this mountainous kingdom, bordered on all sides by South Africa, the regional powerhouse that dominates the enclave's economy.

He's stayed in power through elections consistently endorsed by observers, even though Lesotho's political disputes sometimes erupt in violence.

Mosisili survived a 2009 military-style assault on his official residence that left four people dead. Eight people are standing trial, and the precise motives remain unclear.

But signs of discontent with his rule are everywhere.

A Gallup poll released last month ranked Mosisili among Africa's five most despised leaders, with only 39% of those surveyed approving of his job performance - placing him alongside the likes of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.

"There is an atmosphere of change, but it is predominantly in the urban centres, which is in the minority in terms of the way our constituencies are demarcated," said Hoolo Nyane, director of the Transformation Resource Centre, a leading civil society group.

Within the Lesotho Congress for Democracy, which he brought to power in 1998, efforts to push him from the top spot provoked a dramatic split in February as he resigned from the party and launched his own Democratic Congress, taking a majority of parliamentarians with him.

Interesting scenario

Now the LCD is led by former communications minister Mothejoa Metsing, who led the movement to remove Mosisili as party leader.

The party's leadership conference planned for January was cancelled at the last minute amid fears the dispute could turn violent.

The two rivals are running in a three-horse race with the opposition All Basotho Convention and its leader Tom Thabane.

"It is an interesting scenario," said Nyane. "Unfortunately our election has always been about personality cults and patronage."

"There are some issues that are trying to find a stage in our politics - for example the question of our relationship with South Africa and the question of youth unemployment are moving slowly to the centre."

"But they are not going to determine how the voting goes. Voting is going to go according to personality cults, and geographical area, etc."

Mosisili is a master of manipulating Lesotho's politics.

He rose to power after splitting with the former ruling Basotho Congress Party, the country's first democratically elected government.

Democratic success

Although observers backed his election to power, opposition protests turned so violent that South Africa led a regional military intervention to restore order.

Since then, electoral reforms have soothed many of the tensions, creating a parliament that includes both lawmakers elected by constituencies and others who represent parties under a proportional vote system.

Thabane disputed the method used to allocate the proportional seats following the 2007 polls - a feud mostly eased by tweaking the electoral code.

With no election polls, the vote on Saturday is widely seen as a toss-up in one of the most fiercely fought campaigns since independence from Britain in 1966.

After a long dictatorship and then a rocky monarchy in the 1990s, a smooth election would extend a string of democratic success in Africa from Zambia to Senegal and most recently Malawi.

Hoping to steer the country in that direction, South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited last month at the invitation of the United Nations to preside over the signing of a "peace vow" by the main parties.

"Whoever does not take this pledge, does not love Lesotho - and does not deserve to be its leader," he said.

Read more on:    robert mugabe  |  pakalitha mosisili  |  lesotho  |  zimbabwe  |  sa  |  southern africa

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