THE Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) recently registered seven new political parties bringing the total number of such entities in tiny Lesotho to a staggering 53.
As if that is not enough, the IEC expects to register more parties before the October 2022 elections. One of the IEC’s commissioners has warned the number of political parties could soon reach 100, making even ballot papers difficult to dissect.
Analysts are unanimous that the proliferation of these parties is not a sign of a healthy flourishing democracy. To the contrary, it is a very categorial indicator that many Basotho see political office as the quickest and safest highway to riches. Democracy is not enhanced by the proliferation of small parties, many with no chance in hell of ever forming government.
Politics in Lesotho has become an industry because of lack of economic opportunities, according to National University of Lesotho (NUL) academic Mahao Mahao.
“Basotho are taking politics as an industry because of lack of employment. They believe politics is where one can make money quickly,” says Dr Mahao.
The existence of numerous parties is also seen splintering votes with small insignificant parties managing to sneak into parliament with a seat or two owing to the country’s mixed member proportional representation (MMPR) system. This inevitably resulted in unwieldly coalitions – such as the current six party coalition – at the expense of achieving a coherent government.
Analysts also blame voters who continuously believe in anyone masquerading as a politician with their little parties. They give these insignificant politicians votes, notwithstanding their lack of viable policy propositions, enabling them to scrap a single proportional representation (PR) seat and earn a salary. Others are then inspired to register their own one-man parties in the hope they can also scrap a few votes to get into parliament and access to the lucrative benefits of being a legislator.
Former South African Finance Minister and businessman, Tito Mboweni, once remarked that in Lesotho, access to political offices was seen as the sure one-instant highway to instant riches.
It did not make sense that a tiny country of 2, 2 million people of which just about half are registered voters (about 580 000 people voted in the June 2017 elections) commanded more than 53 politics parties. Power in the biggest and richest democracy, the United States, revolves around only two parties despite a humungous population of more than 300 million people.
As Mr Mboweni noted this massive interest in forming political parties is only attributable to politics being seen as an easy source of employment and access to income via control of the resources of state. That also explained Lesotho’s rampant corruption.
Dr Mahao says laws and regulations that enable funding for political parties also give rise to a high number of chancers. Each will register their party in the hope they can scrap some votes and qualify for getting easy money through the state’s funding of political parties.
The new parties that have recently come into being are Basotho Economic Enrichment (BEE) led by Litaba Mohatle, Basotho Social Party (BSP) led by Bofihla Letsie, Bahlabani ba Tokoloho Movement (BTM) led by Tšeliso Moleko, Khothalang Basotho (KB) led by ’Makeratile Mathibolle, Lesotho Economic Freedom Fighters (LEFF) led by Tefo Makhakhe, Metsi and Natural Resource Party (METSI) led by Lenka Thamae.
According to the IEC, all the seven new parties had met the registration requirements stipulated in Section 24 of the National Assembly Electoral Act, 2011. They were duly issued with their certificates by newly appointed director of elections, Advocate Mpaiphele Maqutu’.
The IEC chairperson, Mr Mphasa Mokhochane, recently lamented the proliferation of political parties, noting that when the IEC was launched in 1998, there were only six political parties.
“When the IEC was formed in 1998, there were only six registered parties and today the numbers have swelled to 53,” Mr Mokhochane said more than a fortnight ago.
“Thirty-three parties contested the 2017 elections and 20 more have been registered since then. To put things into perspective, 11 parties have been certified since last year.”
While the proliferation of political parties could mean democracy is at play, it could also be a bane. It could be an indicator of the inability of politicians to work together for the good of the country resulting in them splintering at every turn.
In June last year, IEC Commissioner, Tšoeu Petlane, said that if party registrations continued at the pace at which they were going, Lesotho would have at least 100 parties contesting the October 2022 general elections.
“Looking at the rate at which political parties are being registered, there is a possibility that we could be having 100 parties by the time of the 2022 elections. We should be asking ourselves what’s causing this (proliferation of parties). “Maybe democracy is at work. It could mean that freedom of association and expression are at play and there is room for everyone to participate.
“If so, that’s a good thing. However, it could also mean that there is political intolerance among politicians, and anyone can form their own party whenever they fall out with others in their previous parties. This could also mean that we have derailed and lost our way. We really need to look into what each party brings to the table,” Commissioner Petlane said at the time.
One way of curtailing the proliferation is by voters demanding quality in terms of policies from those vying for political office and ignoring the masqueraders. But Lesotho’s “passive voters” had continuously voted for politicians with nothing to offer, according to another NUL academic, senior political science lecturer Tlohang Letsie.
He said the electorate had enabled the proliferation of parties by tolerating mediocrity. There were a number of people who would not even think of registering new parties if they knew they would be confronted with a critical, probing electorate.
Dr Mahao said the electorate should begin caring more about policies to improve lives and standards of living instead of tolerating any small parties not build on coherent ideology. If the voters show that they are able to critique their leaders and demand high standards, most of the small parties with no ideological grounding would not even come into being.
“Voters must demand quality and not be fascinated by party colours… If they seek quality and demand quality, that may eliminate chancers…. Voters are more powerful than they think,” Dr Mahao said.
“The proliferation of political parties exemplifies the socio-economic problems in Lesotho… Without adequate jobs, political parties are seen as the best alternative sanctuary to hit the jackpot of accessing government money,” Dr Mahao added , while also proposing the tightening of criteria of registering political parties.
Dr Letsie concurs saying Basotho now view politics as the best vehicle through which to accumulate wealth.
“It is not important to have so many parties because most of them are not bringing anything new. They are coming in with the same principles that existing parties are offering… A new party should be formed on the basis of policy proposals that demonstrably differ with those of existing parties,” he said.
Another NUL academic, associate professor Motlamelle Kapa, nonetheless sees the increase in political parties as democracy at play. Democracy dictates no limit to the number of political parties that can be allowed, he contends.
However, he also agrees that the electorate has the power to curb the proliferation by simply ignoring the obvious chancers.
“There is no problem with forming political parties. It is everyone’s right to do so. Those with nothing to offer should be left to succumb to their democratic deaths by being ignored by voters… But that should occur after they have been afforded their constitutional right to freedom of association….,” Professor Kapa said.
The voters should deploy their power by only voting progressive leaders propounding good policies to improve their lot. Voters should critique candidates and weed out those bent on pursuing personal interests instead of serving the nation.