From Orange to Green: An Assessment of Lesotho’s Elections

Image: The Chair of Commonwealth observers to Lesotho elections, former Malawi President Dr Bakili Muluzi (right) at a polling station in Maseru Lesotho on 26 May 2012. Photo © Julius Mucunguzi
Image: The Chair of Commonwealth observers to Lesotho elections, former Malawi President Dr Bakili Muluzi (right) at a polling station in Maseru Lesotho on 26 May 2012. Photo © Julius Mucunguzi

How much difference does one year make? In September 2011, the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) and the Africa Governance, Monitoring and Advocacy Project (AfriMAP) jointly launched a report examining governance in the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, through the prism of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM).

The report was entitled Implementing the APRM: Views from Civil Society: Lesotho Report.

The APRM is an innovative instrument of the African Union that seeks to improve governance in participating states. Signatory states first assess their own governance situation and then host an external review team, which does the same. The two reports are then combined, a continental panel makes recommendations, and the country embarks on making changes committed to in a National Programme of Action (NPoA). The report published by SAIIA and AfriMAP assessed progress achieved by Lesotho since it underwent the APRM process in 2009.

Researchers examined a total of 13 governance issues requiring attention. Progress on these issues was rated according to a “traffic light scale”, whereby success was given a green light, lack thereof a red, and mixed progress an orange. On one of the most prominent issues discussed – elections – the report stated that these “have proven to be one of the most problematic practices, often associated with social and political conflict, personal insecurity and general public instability… Since the first poll in 1960 the country has held a total of ten elections at national and local government levels. All have resulted in public tension and sometimes violence, with the aftermath of the 1970 and 1998 general elections being the most violent and destructive in both human and economic cost.”

Although the 1998 elections had been endorsed by international observers, they caused such serious public discontent with the outcome that it resulted in wide-scale revolt and rioting.  Protests by opposition parties also escalated to an extent where, at the request of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) Government and under the cover of SADC, South Africa, Botswana and later Zimbabwe were militarily drawn into the conflict.

Following negotiations between the government and political parties, Lesotho adopted a Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) parliamentary electoral model of 120 members, which first came into practice in 2002. The system was introduced to reduce and diffuse political and election related conflict, resulting from the under-representation of some political groups. Consequently, the 2002 National Assembly election was conducted according to an MMP system, with two-thirds of the seats (80) allocated according to a first-past the-post single-member constituency plurality system (FPTP), and the remaining third (40) on a proportional representation compensatory system (PR).

Although the 2002 vote went well, the honeymoon did not last long. The 2007 elections marked a second time Lesotho used the MMP electoral model, and thus it was a test of sustainability. However, political maneuvering and alliances led to protests by some opposition parties regarding the allocation of seats. Local initiatives towards a constructive resolution came to nothing, and as a result the SADC sent a Ministerial Troika Mission, although it too failed in attempts to bring about a solution.

It is important to note that both the 2002 and 2007 elections were endorsed by observers. Endorsements not withstanding however, authors of the Implementing the APRM: Views from Civil Society: Lesotho Report argued that progress was mixed, as “in spite of positive achievements, the inability of the country to consolidate its gains and the resulting fragility of the entrenchment meant that the country should get an orange rating”.

The peaceful conduct of the 26 May 2012 elections was a welcome change to the usual post-election turmoil. The background to the vote was rather unusual, but not unique. In 1997, leading to the 1998 elections, the then incumbent Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle resigned from the leadership of the ruling Basotholand Congress Party (BCP), formed the LCD and then continued to occupy the State House. Using the argument that the majority of BCP members of parliament (MPs) had joined him in the new party, he continued to rule the country under what were clearly very controversial circumstances.

The LCD won the 2002 election under Pakalitha Mosisili, who then took the premiership until late February 2012. Using the same strategy as Ntsu, the incumbent  Mosisili, voted amongst Africa’s five most unpopular leaders in a recent poll by Gallup, resigned from the ruling LCD to form the Ntsu Democratic Congress (DC). Likewise, he took along the majority of the MPs, with whom he continued to govern the country. With the only exception being that there had been formal cross-over in Parliament, the DC also lacked the necessary overall majority, which led to serious discontent.

Consequently Lesotho’s King Letsie III, in his capacity as a Constitutional Monarch, dissolved the Parliament and set a date for new elections. In these elections, Mosisili’s newly-formed DC received the most seats, 48 out of 120 (41 FPP, 7 MMP), but failed to obtain the necessary parliamentary majority (60 + 1). As coalition talks dragged on for over a week after the results were announced, many feared a repeat of the 1998 post-electoral violence or even the 1994 military coup. The threat level rose higher as the DC leadership continuously assured its followers that because they commanded the majority, they were in a position to form a government, even a minority one if needed.

However, political parties, which had all signed a pre-electoral pledge of non-violence, kept themselves and their supporters calm, whilst wooing each other to form a coalition. Failing to find a party willing to enter into a coalition with the DC, Mosisili agreed to step down on 7 June. Subsequently, a new coalition government was  formed by three leading opposition political parties with 61 seats between them (All Basotho Convention (ABC)-30, LCD-26 and Basotho National Party (BNP)-5).

While the handling of 2012 elections shows that Lesotho made a large stride in the right direction, the prevailing political culture still is cause for concern. Although Mosisili, often accused of authoritarianism and hunger for power, stepped down peacefully, his subsequent statements have diminished the value of his actions. Mosisili went on to hold pitsos (public meetings/rallies) trying to convince his supporters that the DC should have been given an opportunity to form a government before the opposition coalition, as it won the majority of seats. This prompted an intervention – regarded as unprofessional by many – from the Minister of Communications to ban Mosisili from the country’s airwaves.

Other examples of a lack of political tolerance include pre-election disturbances that occurred on textile industrial sites at Thatsane and Maputsoe between labour and the LCD on the one hand, and labour and the newly formed DC on the other. At the post-election stage, there was also a tendency towards the use of emotive rhetoric and contradictory messages, especially by the DC in relation to whether its supporters should fight or not.

It is now necessary to consolidate the gains achieved and make sure that peaceful elections and transition of power become a norm rather than exception. The democratic pre-conditions for this certainly exist – Lesotho was placed at a respectable 9th place in the 2012 Mo Ibrahim index of African governance.

Lesotho now also joins a list of countries that have held free and fair elections resulting in a  in a peaceful transition of power from the previous government to members of the opposition. On Lesotho’s 46th National Day this October, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commended the country for having made great strides toward strengthening its democratic institutions and the rule of law, ‘as exemplified by this year’s elections’. She went on to argue that  the ‘peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box marks not only a milestone in Lesotho’s history, but also serves as a positive example for the region’.

A brief ‘expert opinion’ survey carried out for the purpose of this article resonates with the view expressed above. Many of those interviewed expressed an opinion that Lesotho should receive a green rating for the conduct of its 2012 elections, as their conduct brought about three positive changes. Firstly, for the first time in Lesotho’s independence the opposition peacefully unseated the ruling party.  Secondly, the transition to a coalition government was remarkably smooth. Thirdly, the country’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) was credited for its positive engagement of stakeholders and role-players leading to, during and post the 2012 elections. According to the Director of the Centre for Policy Research & Development in Lesotho, Mzimkhulu Sithetho, the IEC “has been more engaging and transparent in its operations during the 2012 elections. Sub-committees that complemented the work of the IEC were formed. This further injected public confidence in the polls.”

The next time an assessment of the country’s APRM implementation will be performed, this widely held sense of positive achievement would undoubtedly be highlighted and the country would be given a green light for the progress achieved in terms of elections.

13 Nov 2012