Virus threatens Lesotho’s political system



Makhabane Maluke

SAD history ought not to repeat itself in Lesotho. Most of the currently active – constructively or destructively – nationals were not around when a “five year holiday from politics” was declared in 1970. The PM of the time said the declaration was necessitated by “the need to meet the urgent needs of the people who wanted economic development”. Was it him who coined the phrase “lipolotiki voetsek”?

Loyalists nicknamed him “Liaba”. That five-year holiday extended until 1985 when an election was held and won 100 percent by the ruling party which participated alone resulting in a government that lasted only three months. Basotho labeled the election “Likhetho-Mohlolo”.

The above reasoning was just an icing sugar coating over the suspension of the constitution, parliament and the declared state of emergency. At the time, Lesotho had just a handful of political parties. Was it these that may have disabled economic development? The world however knew the reason was to avoid conceding defeat following the Basotho Congress Party 36, Basotho National Party 23 and Marematlou Freedom Party one seat results in the January 1970 election.

Many Basotho do not know the number of political parties Lesotho has today. Some parties are not known altogether in some localities; to the extent that under other circumstances where parties are classified according to their strengths, they deserved to be referred to as district/regional and not national parties. There are those that also hibernate after every election and only resurface on the eve of the next election.

How unviable political parties impact in Lesotho ought to be of interest. Some even go to the extent of fielding party agents in polling stations where they are certain they have no potential voters. For such to have party agents there, they dangle Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) funds to entice members of other parties to be their agents there. The 2015 snap election had a trend where such party agents-to-be reported to their respective party of the danger of being deployed to distant polling stations where they had not registered to vote. Such lacked time to arrange for either transfers to vote there or to vote as advance voters. Deployment of 20 such party agents to say 10 far away polling stations in a constituency is a huge loss of votes otherwise due to their parties. Registered voters reluctantly had to swallow this bitter pill in the interest of just M300 or M150 payable to party agents; some of which fail to get paid for some IEC excuse that the involved party agents did not sign a diary book.

The root cause of the forgoing could be political party funding. While the IEC has its mechanisms to manage the fund, radio broadcasts recently gave the news that some of the beneficiary parties have still not expressed the status of affairs of funds allocated to them for the 2015 elections. Will such expect funding for the next election?

With the kind of outlook of the Lesotho 1970 PM, how does the current number of political parties and their performance affect the economic development of Lesotho? One clear impact of the Mixed Member Proportion (MMP) electoral model is the large number of parties which now access parliament; and along with that, the kind and threats posed by a multi-party opposition.

The current opposition has always left a lot to be desired. It comprises of a statutorily recognized party (official opposition) to which two (unrecognized) minority parties appear very attached. How they relate gives an impression the three were a single parliamentary party: with a common ideology or program. They walk out together, proceed on stay-away and resume sittings together. Their three leaders tend to sing identical songs. Besides, the strength of the two minority parties separately or together does not equal the quorum as fixed for the House. This aspect is very important in the workings of representative parliaments.

If their working together has obtained the approval of the Speaker that would really be democracy at play. This ought to have been formally requested; that they expected to so work together. Any spontaneous teamwork could be less in the public interest but for a negative purpose.  A constructive opposition has to keep the government on track and not to just disrupt under the excuse that a sitting government has to be opposed. The fragmented national vote has introduced another new dilemma of hung parliaments and coalition governments. The first 2012-2017 coalition did not last the full term because the governing parties did not observe the traditions of coalitions. It can be believed that funds channeled for the 2012 election were wasted because the product of that election was miscarried.

The current coalition government is now in the second year of its 2015-2020 term with the kind of opposition described above. Another new feature of the current 9th Parliament is infighting within political parties, including some in the coalition government. What could have caused all this, and why now? Has a virus been creeping in unnoticed over time and now strikes? Attention and energy which ought to be channeled for constructive engagements is shared with efforts to intentionally criticize, destabilize or react to threats; including a sitting government which at times has to look over its shoulder.

All the forgoing are raised in the context of the 1970 view that a holiday from politics would enable economic development. That holiday actually deprived the people referred to their right to self determination. Declaring such a holiday today would be a sin to parliamentary democracy. Some other acceptable form of holiday or a better remedy to the current problems of our political system could be the best alternative.

What if a law to regulate political party activities was enacted? Whose baby are all these many political parties? Can it be denied that they are highly unregulated – including their very easy formation? The IEC could be empowered to call for and inspect political party books; to verify whether a membership register exists and is up-to-date to confirm a party has the potential to contest an impending election. That should, in turn, entitle such a party to campaign funding. Existence of a bank account, a party address etc may not be adequate as these may help promote unviable parties.

Party infighting and factionalism have to be managed. Crises within political parties have to be anticipated. This could be why elsewhere in the democratic world, even parliament has some role in the management of intra-party conflicts which spill over into parliament.  Standing Orders even prescribe: if an MP who took oath of office under party sponsorship ceases to belong to that party (defection/suspension/expulsion), that MP shall be recognized as an independent for the rest of the remaining term of parliament. Parliament has not to be reduced, through party conflicts, to a laboratory for displacement experiments or be viewed like a football field where players may be substituted during an on-going game by the coach.

Even the Lesotho MMP electoral model, which was a reaction to crises of national political instability, recognizes that constituency and compensatory/PR seat MPs are equal, except that they come in differently. Our MMP only has to be perfected to maximize benefits of its existence. Should that perfection include ejection of an MP who was correctly ushered into parliament? The Lesotho constitution is clear on how an MP gets disqualified.

The reality is that handling of political party activities in Lesotho is in its infancy. No wonder there is up to now no recall of MPs mechanism in place. Onus for such a vacuum has not to shift to an electoral model whose primary purpose is to determine who gets into a new/next parliament as an MP.

Some of us are looking forward to situations when Lesotho has “recognized” and “unrecognized” political parties; and when parliament has a “protected” budget where unspent funds do not lapse with the financial year – treating parliament as a department regulated through government financial regulations. There are parliaments where the Finance minister has to negotiate/plead with Speaker on the budget of parliament as submitted. Still others can never ever reduce a budget from the Judiciary.

The politically -ndependent and democratic Lesotho is faced with a challenge: How can intra-party instability be controlled; so that it never spills over into parliament and government? The state or nature of political parties determines the quality of how each views and handled constitutional, parliamentary and national issues. In situations of lack of or inadequate local remedies; conventions, practice and rulings of Speakers from other jurisdictions could be a guide. Going to courts ought to be the last resort.

Unlike my previous prayer and appeal through the Lesotho Times 6 October 2016 issue directed to members of the DC, this particular prayer and appeal is aimed at every Mosotho and every actor in all fronts of our highly plural political system. Everyone’s aim should be to save Lesotho from the impending political decay.  A nation should not take pride in endless and unnecessary competitions, naming and shaming, including finger pointing which appear popular these days. All these are destructive. This signals the beginning of political decline or actual decay.

It is often the unnecessary incidents that invite unexpected solutions. Political parties, parliament and the executive have to respectively be in good health, so that our kind of parliamentary democracy also remains healthy. Remember how the 20 January 1986 experience developed? No one then, and government itself, anticipated that intervention but it swiftly occurred because normalcy had withered away and only returned after 1993 on the return of the use of the ballot. That power of the ballot is now under threat. Let us avoid drifting as we do, to avoid attracting undemocratic interventions.

It would be more patriotic if all of us declared a holiday from all forms of instability with political undertones. The current MMP was designed as a potential solution to frequent national political upheavals which characterized Lesotho. The only option for the current situation would be for every citizen to always do the right thing, anything which will not affect the original good standing of our politics. All negative acts in different political parties should not be carried over into parliament and government.

The Church is specifically encouraged to carry its noble mission among Basotho. That it should do without any political bias. Lesotho still vividly recalls the era of the first coalition government with utterances like “Muso oa Molimo”, by some during official ceremonies. It has to remain “Muso oa Motlotlehi” please!

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