- main governing parties accuse each other of seeking to cancel polls over fears of losing to each other,
- IEC says still awaiting govt decision on fate of by-elections.
THE country’s main coalition partners who have been feuding over everything, from the country’s appalling human trafficking record to the crafting of the controversial National Peace and Unity Bill, are at each other’s throats again.
This time the All Basotho Convention (ABC) and the Democratic Congress (DC) are sharply divided over whether or not the country should hold by-elections in five constituencies that are currently without representation.
As confusion surrounds the fate of the by-elections, the two parties are accusing each other of seeking to cancel the polls due to fear of losing ground to each other ahead of next year’s eagerly awaited general elections.
ABC spokesperson ‘Montoeli Masoetsa says his party is willing and ready to go for the polls to ensure that all constituencies are represented in parliament line with the constitution. He says the polls would give the party an ideal platform to test whether the departure of former deputy leader Nqosa Mahao to form his own Basotho Action Party (BAP) has eroded the ABC’s support ahead of next year’s general elections. He says the only challenges to the holding of the polls are lack of funds.
He also accuses the DC of pushing for the cancellation of the by-elections on the grounds that holding them now, when general elections are just over a year away, would be an unnecessary waste of resources.
However, DC spokesperson and Mining Minister, Serialong Qoo, says Mr Masoetsa is “lying through his teeth”.
It is actually the ABC which has pushed for the cancellation of the by-elections in meetings that the political parties have held with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Mr Qoo told the Lesotho Times this week.
If anything, the DC is willing and ready for the by-elections, Mr Qoo added.
By-elections are long overdue in ‘Makhoroana, ‘Maliepetsane, Mohale’s Hoek, Kolo and Qacha’s Nek. The five constituencies have been without representation following the deaths of their legislators between 2019 and 2021.
Three of the deceased legislators, Lefu Hlomelang (‘Makhoroana), Michael Molefe (‘Maliepetsane) and Sentje Lebona (Mohale’s Hoek) were all from ABC.
The late Kolo constituency MP, Putsoane Leeto, was a member of DC. The Qacha’s Nek vacancy arose after the former incumbent, Pontšo Sekatle, stepped down to become Lesotho’s ambassador to Belgium and the European Union in February this year.
Although they are constitutionally due within 90 days of a vacancy, uncertainty surrounds the holding of the by-elections.
This week, Mr Masoetsa said there was no truth to claims by some ABC officials who told this publication that the party was not keen to go for the by-elections because it feared losing due to the April 2021 split which saw Professor Mahao form the BAP.
Prof Mahao jumped ship, citing an alleged plot to oust him from then party. He accused Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro, ABC leader Thomas Thabane and secretary general, Lebohang Hlaele, of instigating the plot to oust him. Prof Mahao was followed out of the ABC by Mokhotlong legislator, Tefo Mapesela, who formed the Basotho Patriotic Party (BPP). ABC officials who spoke to this publication on condition of anonymity said these high-profile departures have sparked fears that the party could lose the by-elections if they are held.
However, Mr Masoetsa insisted that his party had nothing to fear.
“We wanted to go for by-elections. We even discussed this in our national executive committee meetings and we all agreed that we should go for by-elections.
“We want to use the by-elections as a measuring stick to gauge whether or not the formation of the BAP has had any effects on our support base. We were going to win other constituencies because we have no challenges at Makhoroana. It was only a matter of how to win Kolo and Qacha’s Nek because they were previously not won by us.
“We want the by-elections but the biggest challenge is whether there is money for that. We talked to Majoro and he confirmed that there is no money,” Mr Masoetsa said.
“It is not us who have denied people the right to vote. It is the Coronavirus and lack of funds.
“They banned political rallies to stop us from holding them. It was (DC leader and Deputy Prime Minister Mathibeli) Mokhothu who made that announcement (banning rallies). How will we campaign when we are no longer allowed to hold rallies,” Mr Masoetsa said, adding the DC was opposed to the polls. He said the DC first raised its objections to the holding of by-elections in a meeting with the IEC in March this year.
“It was the DC who questioned what they said was wasting M11 million to hold by-elections to vote people into parliament only for parliament’s tenure to end next year with the holding of general elections.
“They (DC) said we should cancel the by-elections and hold general elections next year. They said it but now they are just being opportunistic by demanding the by-elections when they have been made aware that that there is no money for them,” Mr Masoetsa said.
His allegations were dismissed as a “blue lie” by DC spokesperson Mr Qoo.
“I want you to write that Serialong Qoo said that Masoetsa is blatantly lying because he was not even part of the IEC meeting in March.
“Hlaele represented the ABC in that meeting. He said there was no need for the country to hold by-elections because the current voters’ roll, which people are complaining about, is inaccurate and must be corrected.
“Others who attended that meeting did not agree with Hlaele. They argued that the same voters’ roll had been used in previous elections and we must therefore hold the by-elections. That is what transpired in the meeting. This means that what Masoetsa is saying is blue lie. The DC is not afraid of elections. Let them announce the date for the by-elections and we will go for them,” Mr Qoo said.
Last month, the Ministry of Finance ruled out funding the polls and instead ordered the IEC to start preparing for the 2022 general elections. Ministry officials said there were no funds to bankroll by-elections in the five constituencies and local government polls in some district councils.
Finance Minister Thabo Sophonea, himself an ABC legislator for the Thaba-Bosiu constituency, subsequently weighed in on the issue, saying the IEC should forget about receiving any funds from treasury as it had never requested anything to conduct the polls.
“Just because it is a legal exercise does not mean we must just cut budget for other institutions to accommodate this one,” Mr Sophonea said in an interview with this publication.
“IEC must look for money within their own budget heads, it must forego other things in order for them to hold these elections, not for the Ministry of Finance to rescue them.
“We don’t have an extra budget; in fact we have a budget shortfall. In as much as it is a must to hold elections, where should we get the money when it is not budgeted for it? Does it mean they (IEC) must not budget for the upcoming general elections and only write a letter requesting money simply because it is constitutionally binding to hold elections?
“Is that fair to expect finance to have money put aside just in case institutions need money for legally binding activities? It is not the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance to second guess institutions, they must think for themselves and bring budget proposals to us,” Mr Sophonea said.
IEC public relations manager, Tuoe Hantši, subsequently said they were shocked that the Ministry of Finance’s Budget Controller, Maleshoane Lekomola-Danziger, had written to them purporting to cancel the by-elections on the grounds that that was no money to fund them. He said such decisions could only be made by cabinet and not civil servants like Ms Lekomola-Danziger.
“Truly speaking, that shocked us but there are ongoing talks between the government and the IEC. It is expected that the Minister of Finance (Thabo Sophonea) will meet the IEC to look into this matter before it is taken to cabinet.
“The normal practice has always been that government would finance by-elections from the contingency fund. By-elections are emergencies caused by deaths or resignations. We have always held by-elections that were not budgeted for and the money would be drawn from the contingency budget. Even now, we thought we would be given money from the contingency fund. The commission will talk to government authorities and a decision will be made by the cabinet as has always been the case,” Mr Hantši said last month.
He said the National Assembly Electoral Act of 2011 clearly states that the IEC must conduct by-elections to fill any vacancies provided they arise at least six months before general elections are held.
This week, Mr Hantši said they were still awaiting communication from the government on the fate of the by-elections.
“The IEC is not aware of the cancellation of by-elections, we are still expecting communication from the government on the issue” Mr Hantši said in an interview with this publication.
He said the IEC commissioners met political parties in March this year but there was never a decision to cancel the by-elections. His sentiments were echoed by IEC chairperson, Mphasa Mokhochane, who said they were still waiting for government communication on the fate of the by-elections.