History of elections in Lesotho

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Ngoni Muzofa

Ntsu Mokhehle

LESOTHO will hold its third National Assembly elections in five years on 3 June 2017 after Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s seven-party coalition government lost a parliamentary no-confidence vote sponsored by four opposition parties on 1 March 2017.

Apart from Dr Mosisili’s Democratic Congress (DC) the outgoing governing coalition consists of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), Marematlou Freedom Party (MFP), Basotho Congress Party (BCP), National Independent Party (NIP), Lesotho People’s Congress (LPC) and Popular Front for Democracy (PFD).

The parties cobbled Lesotho’s second coalition government on 4 March 2015 after the 28 February 2015 general election had resulted in a hung parliament. Since none of the 23 contesting parties won the minimum 61 seats needed to form government on its own, the “Congress movement” parties banded together and formed government. The DC had won 47 of the 120 parliamentary seats on offer, followed by the All Basotho Convention (ABC) which clinched 46.

This was after the first tripartite coalition consisting of the ABC, Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) and Basotho National Party (BNP) had unravelled in 2014 after assuming power on 8 June 2012.

Then premier and ABC leader, Thomas Thabane, had fallen out with his then coalition partner, LCD leader, Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, for allegedly not consulting him when making key decisions on governance.

Infighting was also the root cause of the Dr Mosisili-led government’s demise, and particularly was pronounced in the DC. A faction led by then DC deputy leader, Monyane Moleleki, split from the party to form the Alliance of Democrats (AD) last December which undercut the government’s numerical supremacy in the National Assembly.

Prior to leaving the DC, Mr Moleleki and members of his faction inked an agreement with the ABC, BNP and Reformed Congress of Lesotho (RCL) to oust the government through a parliamentary no-confidence vote.

And with the split of the DC in December 2016, the opposition parties smelt blood and agitated for a no-confidence motion in parliament. The opposition’s bid to unseat the government was also bolstered by the split in the LCD which saw its erstwhile secretary-general Selibe Mochoboroane jump ship to form the Movement for Economic Change (MEC).

On 1 March 2017, opposition lawmakers booted out the Dr Mosisili-led government with a rapturous yea which drowned out the opposition’s nay, with then National Assembly Speaker Ntlhoi Motsamai not needing to count the legislators for or against the no-confidence motion.

Dr Mosisili resorted to a constitutional provision that empowers a sitting prime minister to advise the King to dissolve parliament and call for elections.

King Letsie III acquiesced to the premier’s advice and duly dissolved parliament on 6 March 2017. His Majesty eventually proclaimed 3 June 2017 as election-day.

BNP narrowly wins first elections

Lesotho’s first democratic elections held in 1965 ahead of Independence in 1966.

The elections were contested by the Basotho National Party (BNP) led by Leabua Jonathan, Dr Ntsu Mokhehle’s Basutoland African Congress (BAC) in 1952 — later renamed Basutoland Congress Party (BCP) in 1959 – and the Marema-Tlou Party (MTP).

The MTP went on to merge with another newly-founded party, the Freedom Party led by Makalo Khaketla to form what remains of the Marema-Tlou Freedom Party (MFP). Both the BNP and the MFP came about as a result of squabbles over the ideological inclinations of Dr Mokhehle’s BCP.

Dr Mokhehle was seen as advancing the interests of the commoners at the expense of the chiefs.

However, the BNP narrowly defeated the BCP in the elections, winning 31 seats to the BCP’s 25 and the MTP’s four. The BNP led Lesotho to Independence on 4 October 1966 with Chief Jonathan as prime minister.

The election’s outcome delivered a minority government, since the BNP had only won only 42 percent of the total valid vote. The BCP, MFP and some independent candidates, who collectively secured a total of 58 percent of the vote, felt cheated by the electoral system.

The opposition parties contested the election outcome alleging that the BNP had rigged the process with tacit collaboration of the British colonial administration. This was followed by violet conflicts with many lives lost.

BCP wins 1970 polls

However, the subsequent 1970 elections were won by Dr Mokhehle’s BCP with 36 seats to BNP’s 23 while MFP only secured one seat in the then 60-member legislature.

The BCP never got to enjoy the victory, as the elections were nullified after the country’s multi-party democracy was suspended. Chief Jonathan seized power and declared a state of emergency. This resulted in the arrest of some of the BCP leaders and King Moshoeshoe II.

After 20 years in office, Chief Jonathan’s reign ended following a January 1986 border blockade imposed on the country by South Africa’s apartheid regime. The blockade was due to the increased presence of African National Congress members in the country and many other bilateral disagreements. Chief Jonathan was removed from office through a military coup after years of using the army to crush any dissenting voices against his one-party rule.

The 1986 coup marked the beginning of army rule, with Major-General Metsing Lekhanya taking over the reins. To tighten its grip on power, the military imposed laws that outlawed political activities such as the infamous Order No. 4. The move decimated all BNP grassroots structures. However, the military regime also underwent a number of administrations with the late Major-General Phisoane Ramaema also ascending to the leadership of the military council at a time when the country was looking forward to returning to a government elected through universal suffrage.

Due to the changed tide in the world order following the collapse of the Soviet Union and resultant end of the cold war, there was international pressure on developing countries to democratise.

Maj-Gen Ramaema also had to commit to structural adjustment programmes and a return of political activity in the country in preparation for a fresh election. A constitutional reform process was undertaken to bring to life the country’s current constitution and election in March 1993.

Return of democratic rule

With the 1966 Constitution revised, a vigorous election campaign was held, and the long- awaited general elections were held on 27 March 1993. The BCP won a landslide victory, capturing all 65 constituencies with over 70 percent of the vote. The election was declared to have been free and fair by a wide range of internal and external monitors.

Towards the 1998 general elections, the BCP split into two warring factions. The factions seemed to be the beginning of a history of fragmentation of the mighty BCP that had gained people’s support and sympathy in the 1993 elections and secured a landslide victory. In 1997, at the height of the infighting over leadership roles, Dr Mokhehle formed the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) with a majority of the BCP rank and file defecting to the LCD.

During the 1998 elections, the LCD secured a commanding, if not an overwhelming, victory by winning 78 of the country’s 80 seats in the National Assembly. However those who stayed in the BCP ended being relegated to the opposition alongside the BNP in an election that exposed the country’s first past-the-post electoral model’s flaws. Due to ill-health, Dr Mokhehle was succeeded by Pakalitha Mosisili who took over power as the country’s prime minister.

After the elections, there was much protest from the BNP and BCP on the elections results. The BNP-BCP pact was also joined by the MFP and other parties that argued that the LCD had manipulated the elections results in its favour.

This escalated into civil unrest which lasted for nearly two months and resulted in Maseru going up in flames together with a number of buildings in the Mafeteng and Berea districts.

As the army had always dabbled in politics since its formation, the political unrest was exacerbated by a split in the Lesotho Defence Force when several officers refused to obey orders to use force to disperse protesters against Dr Mosisili’s administration which had then staged a sit-in at the gates of King Letsie III’s Palace gates. This resulted in chaos in the army that ended with Dr Mosisili seeking military intervention from SADC to help maintain order following the 11 September 1998 mutinous actions of some junior officers in the army.

MMP electoral model

The unrest was quelled when the LCD met with the opposition to negotiate fresh elections that were later carried out under a new electoral model. The new electoral model, a hybrid of the first-past-the-post and the proportional representation, mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation, adopted from New Zealand was later adopted after much deliberation under the Interim Political Authority (IPA) which came about as a compromise to facilitate the establishment of an enabling environment for the holding of a fresh election.

Before the 2002 elections were held, the LCD was beset with yet more internal strife with factions once again gunning for the ouster of then deputy prime minister and party deputy leader Kelebone Maope.

Mr Maope ended up bowing to pressure following disagreements in the party and formed a splinter party, the Lesotho People’s Congress (LPC) together with Dr Mokhehle’s younger brother, Shakhane Mokhehle.

They defected from the LCD to LPC together with 25 other members of parliament in 2001 ahead of the 2002 polls. However, when the 2002 elections were held under the MMP electoral model, the LCD secured yet another victory of 77 out of the 120 newly-increased parliamentary seats under the MMP.

The BNP was able to gain 21 compensatory seats in the National Assembly. The LPC only secured five seats in parliament.

The National Independent Party (NIP) under the leadership of Anthony Manyeli scooped five seats in the house, while the BCP and the Basutoland African Congress each garnered three seats and the Lesotho Workers Party, the Popular Front for Democracy, MFP and the National Progressive Party each garnered one seat.

Party coalitions era begins

In the 2007 elections, Dr Mosisili’s LCD had to forge an alliance with the National Independent Party (NIP) led by Dominic Motikoe to ensure its continued dominance as the ABC proved to be a popular party attracting the urban masses in high numbers. The ABC also contested the 2007 elections in an alliance with the Lesotho Workers Party (LWP) led by the late trade unionist-cum-politician, Macaefa Billy.

The LCD managed to garner 62 seats in the 2007 elections with ally NIP guaranteeing the party substantial support with its 21 seats. For its part, the ABC secured 17 seats and ally LWP scooped 10 seats. The BNP had three seats while the BCP only got two seats. The rest; MFP, PFD, Basotho Democratic National Party and the Basotho Batho Democratic Party each secured a single seat.

The fragmentation of political parties over time due to squabbles over leadership increased the number of political parties occupying the political space.

First hung parliament

The 2012 elections resulted in a hung parliament and no party was an outright majority winner resulting in Dr Mosisili losing power to a coalition government cobbled together by Dr Thabane’s ABC with 30 seats, Mr Metsing’s LCD with 26 seats and BNP with five seats.

The DC garnered 48 seats but was relegated to the opposition as no other party wanted to form a coalition to govern with it. The PFD had three seats and NIP two while the LWP, MFP, BDNP, BBDP, LPC and the BCP each had a single seat.

This led to the first and historic peaceful transfer of power by Dr Mosisili to Dr Thabane on 8 June 2012.

However, the Dr Thabane-led tripartite coalition government did not last its five-year term as it collapsed in 2014 due to strained relations between Dr Thabane and Mr Metsing.

The eventual 28 February 2015 elections also failed to produce an outright majority winner and saw another coalition government emerge led by Dr Mosisili.

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