Intra-party conflicts fuel instability

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The friction in the All Basotho Convention (ABC) has stirred mixed reactions and uncertainty over the future of the party and stability of the four-party coalition government in Lesotho. Over the years, Lesotho politics have suffered multiple party splits due to unresolved intra and inter-party conflicts. These have seen the mountain kingdom bearing consequences including dividing the nation and the politicisation of the public service. Currently, Lesotho is at crossroads to decide which governance path to follow through a multi-sector reforms process, highly expected to bring stability to the country. Another government implosion is the last thing on the minds of a people who last June elected a new coalition government after a nerve-wracking security and political crisis. In this wide-ranging interview Tsitsi Matope, Lesotho Times (LT) speaks to Political Scientist and Dean in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the National University of Lesotho, Professor Motlamelle Kapa (MK), on his views on the recent political developments and the political context in Lesotho.

LT: What are your views on the recent show of internal squabbles within ABC and how do you analyse this situation, looking at the ongoing efforts to stabilise Lesotho?

MK: Well the public criticism by the party’s chairman tells the nation that there are some challenges within the ABC. There are probably more people concerned about how power is being applied in certain structures and maybe the concerns are also not just within the ABC but even among the coalition partners. This makes the resolution of the conflict critical to the stability of the government. However, following Mr Motlohi Maliehe’s accusations, we heard Prime Minister Thomas Thabane speaking in a manner that sought to unify the party.  From his statements, we are assured that the matter will be addressed amicably. We don’t know whether we will see a chain of actions working towards achieving what the Prime Minister told the nation and if we see that happening, ABC will be able to avoid a split and go the way the Democratic Congress went in the last coalition. We just hope that the Prime Minister will keep his word and work towards uniting the party and indeed not endanger the stability of the government. He (the PM) cannot step-up alone because it is also the responsibility of the ABC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to discuss and agree on how they are going to resolve the conflict. On the part of the NEC, listening to the concerns and addressing them amicably is critical, but that can only happen if they can put the country’s interests first, in addition to working as a united force. People are talking and particularly after the “Show Cause” letter, of the possibility that the party chairman and other ministers may be fired. But we heard the Prime Minister expressing the need for harmony in government, saying it was not healthy for the members of parliament and even cabinet ministers to be engaged in these kinds of exchanges. I think the party should tread cautiously and make sure that they do not start a process that will lead to the firing of Mr Maliehi and like-minded cabinet ministers. Whatever actions they take, they should aim to unite the party. If they cannot unite, this is probably their last time in government because Basotho will not give them another chance. I believe people are eagerly waiting to see what actions they are going to take, which may also influence how the party is going to conduct its business from now onwards. Maybe we will see a change of behaviour by officials accused of conducting themselves in an undesirable manner or maybe we will see them continue to act in the manner that has enraged some people, for us to then analyse the nature of actions taken. We will also establish whether other party members will resort to washing the party’s dirty linen in public. However, if we hear them speak with one voice that will tell us that the party is back on a healthy track and the government is also safe.

LT: The recent reshuffling of Principal Secretaries raised some eyebrows with some people speculating that maybe it was the beginning of actions aiming to react to the ABC chairman’s utterances…what are your views on that?

MK: I do not know what could have motivated the reshuffle, but I don’t have a problem with principal secretaries being reshuffled especially if that is based on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of government services. As you know, these are political appointments and probably some of them don’t quite understand what it is they are supposed to do in their ministries. I think the people who play a critical role within the ministries are technical people who are not supposed to be political appointees, such as deputy secretaries, directors and other support staff.

The Prime Minister has just made a commitment and launched the reforms agenda and I would want to give the government the benefit of doubt that maybe they saw that they are starting the whole process and require certain qualities in some ministries. Maybe they realised that some of these PSs in key ministries were not performing as expected. But let us not also ignore the fact that this development will have both positive and negative effects because some principal secretaries were beginning to appreciate what was expected of them in their ministries and so when you move them, that sort of disrupts the flow.

LT: Some analysts indicated that the reshuffle points to some kind of a pressure, if you look at some ministries which now have two principal secretaries, where is this pressure coming from… because big does not necessarily mean efficiency and effectiveness,

MK: We can trace the pressure from among the coalition partners, coalition governments everywhere are normally expensive than one party governments because of competing demands. It is difficult to have a trim coalition government, because there are a lot of people involved. Therefore, responsibilities and resources should be spread much wider to all interested actors who matter in the sustainability of the coalition. Another important indicator is that in Lesotho we do not really have many economic options and job opportunities, and as a result, when we have a coalition, a need arises to create space for partners and other key people. I think the problem is when this reshuffling of principal secretaries is going to lead to an increase in ministries and ministers. We are a small country and our ministries are also small, therefore a decision to raise expenditure when you are already complaining that you have a huge wage bill and all that makes no economic sense.

LT: Could you say this pressure is also taking its toll on the stability of the political parties themselves, seeing the instability trend among parties, particularly when they are in government?

MK: The biggest problem in Lesotho is a weak economic base that tends to create pressure to be in government to control resources. Most political parties tend to unite when they are in opposition but the moment they get into power serious conflicts that threaten the parties themselves emerge. The reason being that, once you have made it, some members and their close followers want to have access to the large pieces of the pie and therefore they start to elbow each other. All these conflicts we see, are a sign of a struggle for power and economic resources because of the nature of our economy that does not provide a wider base of opportunities outside government. You may ask why are we seeing squabbles among the ministers themselves, it’s because when they are in cabinet, they also do not always agree on how to distribute the resources. Some have their own ideas, which include wanting to make as much money by any means. And on the other hand, in some cases, those mandated to allocate these resources feel it is their duty to also protect the nation against those wanting to abuse the resources. Remember there is always time to account, hence some cabinet ministers insisting on protecting the national purse and its valuable contents. This whole issue of tenders and other services in need of government funding needs to be handled professionally because in one way or the other accountability would one day become a necessity.

Importantly, to deal with intra-party conflicts and ensure stability of political parties and governments, we also need to look at how the parties themselves are formed in Lesotho. Currently, we do not have an Act that specifically governs political parties such as the Political Parties Act. They are formed and registered under Societies Act of 1967, and so unless we begin to say what a political party is, how should it be formed, operate and be regulated, we will not be able to resolve the problem. You spoke about parties splitting, we have some that do not fit the characteristics that merit the name political party. Among other factors, we can also attribute our problems to the manner in which we selectively chose to implement the mixed-member proportional electoral model. We need to reform the model and ensure that it is correctly implemented, inclusive of a pre-determined threshold to avoid situations where political parties with low votes find their way in parliament and even in cabinet.

LT: In your view, where did Lesotho take a wrong turn in implementing the mixed-member proportional system? 

MK: Lesotho created a problem for itself when it failed to adopt the mixed-member model in its entirety for successful outcomes as is in the case of New Zealand where we borrowed the system. Here it was selectively adopted, leaving some critical pillars including the issue of floor crossing and pre-determined threshold, which help to clearly decide before going for elections what is expected from the parties that will go to parliament. According to the original model, political parties who make it to parliament need to have five percent of the national vote; and Lesotho deliberately omitted that and said we will go for elections and it is the outcome of the election that will help us decide through a quota, which parties will go to parliament. If we had the predetermined threshold and talk of a five percent of about 500,000 Basotho who voted, we would have seen that, only parties that get no less than 25,000 votes will be represented in parliament. What that would do is to prevent a proliferation of parties in parliament, in addition to contributing to stabilising parliament. It would also make the process of forming coalitions easier because they would be fewer parties in parliament. Currently, we have a situation whereby parties losing popular support continue to wield so much political power because you need them to form a government.

LT: You earlier-on also highlighted a critical issue on the unequal distribution of wealth. Why has it been difficult to ensure that all Basotho get a share of the national cake…

MK: In our case this can be linked to many aspects including the mismanagement of resources, corruption and political instability. Some of these conflicts we see result from competing to access the big money and influence. We know that some people who are very rich in this country are or have been connected to certain governments and political parties over the years. They are rich not because they worked very hard but because they benefitted from big tenders. But also, there is a description that political scientists and political economists use to try and explain situations that make equal distribution of wealth difficult in most countries globally. The Neopatrimonialism system dictates that when you make it in power, you have a network of people, your clients, all down to the village level, whose work is to mobilise political support for you. What you then do is to distribute selectively patronage or benefits that come from holding power in the form of tenders, scholarships, jobs and everything else that is found in the public service. In other words, you reward your supporters using, in most cases, state resources. The problem is that you also don’t want to account because you know that if you were to submit to mechanisms of accountability you would not be able to sustain power for a long time. Power can corrupt and most intra-party conflicts we have seen in Lesotho were caused by fighting over the control of resources at the expense of the majority and the wellbeing of the country.

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