The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) Acting Director of Elections, Mphasa Mokhochane, is under no illusion about the magnitude of the task that awaits the polling body when Basotho choose a new government in February 2015.
The country holds an early or snap election next February following the collapse of the coalition government led by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane. Dr Thabane’s All Basotho Convention (ABC), the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) and Basotho National Party (BNP) led by Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing and Senior Minister Thesele ‘Maseribane respectively, formed a coalition government after the 26 May 2012 general election had failed to produce an outright majority to enable a single-party administration.
However, sharp differences between Mr Metsing and his coalition partners over the premier’s alleged failure to consult his fellow leaders when making key decisions with a bearing on good governance, resulted in the fall of the government almost three years before its term ended in 2017.
On 2 October 2014, the country’s political parties signed the Maseru Facilitation Declaration under the guidance of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), under which they agreed to reopen parliament on 17 October (tomorrow), and suspend it early December and then hold general elections towards the end of February 2015.
In this interview, the Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, speaks with Mr Mokhochane about the upcoming poll.
LT: The 2015 general election has come two years earlier than expected. How prepared are you as the IEC to hold this poll?
Mokhochane: We held a meeting today (Monday) with delegates from various political parties where we shared with them the strategy we have come up with concerning the 2015 general elections. The strategy shows a roadmap that will lead us to the elections set for some time in February next year. This strategy is categorised into several main tasks, the first one being voter-registration. We have already advertised all the required posts for us to be able to facilitate the registration. We had initially already closed applications for the posts, but due to some concerns from the public that the time was too short, we have extended the closing dates to 17 October 2014. We have already set out the dates for short-listing and interviewing the candidates. Short-listing will be done from 20-21 October, and the interviews will follow on 23 and 24 October. And on the same day, Friday 24 October, we will also be displaying the names of selected people to conduct the voter-registration. We have also already issued letters inviting all registered political parties’ representatives to be available on these days to observe the processes so it can be as transparent as possible. We will then sign employment contracts with the engaged staff and introduce them to the area chiefs where they are going to be deployed to conduct the voter-registration.
LT: What follows after this?
Mokhochane: The following step will be the recruitment of specialised skills personnel. Here we are referring to technicians and facilitators. Their positions will be advertised from today, Monday 13 October, and Friday, 17 October, will be the deadline for submission of applications. A similar process to the previous recruitment will also be followed in this category. We hope to conclude all these processes on 30 October and start preparations for the training of the new staff.
LT: What is the roadmap for all this?
Mokhochane: Based on our strategy, the voter-registration will start on 3 November. This time around, because of time-constraints, we have also arranged that our officers conducting the voter registration should be seen mobile and not stuck at one registration point. We want to see them moving to places where people are normally found gathered in large number. For instance, bus-stops, clinics, party rallies and other public gatherings; these are places we would want the officers to frequent to conduct the voter-registration. Another good example of such areas where people are found in large numbers are industrial areas. We did it before, and again we are going to organise with management at such companies to allocate some space for us where we can set up our tents and go on with the registration process.
LT: Are you also going to conduct voter-registration outside Lesotho?
Mokhochane: That point also emerged from the parties’ representatives that the IEC should reach out to Basotho in South Africa and elsewhere abroad, but that has proved to be unsuccessful in the past. Prior to the 26 May 2012 general elections, our officers had arranged with the management of some tertiary institutions in South Africa so they could go there and conduct the voter-registration. But when the time came, these arrangements proved to be a flop. Our people were being sent from pillar to post while in the end there were very few students who came to register. However, we are still going to discuss this issue with the Commission (management) to see how best it can be handled, considering also that the time is limited. One other very important factor to consider when trying to negotiate allocation of time from the South African universities is that while we intend to conduct voter registration in November, it is again a crucial period for the South African tertiary institutions as, unlike ours, they will be busy preparing for examinations, if they would not have embarked on the exams already. This again makes it difficult for us to secure space for voter registration. Remember our target is the youth in the ages from 18 years, as well as the 17-year-old youths who would have turned 18 years by the time of the election. We also have migrant labourers we should consider. But like I said, the Commission is yet to finalise an appropriate approach concerning this.
LT: Many Basotho seem to believe the time is too short for you to conduct free and fair elections in February next year…
Mokhochane: This question of time has now become the norm as almost everyone is asking whether we are going to be able to conduct good elections in such a short period of time. It’s called snap elections. And the funny thing is people are expecting us to say no. But we cannot agree with them that we can’t conduct free and fair elections because the Commission, when it comes to this issue of voter-registration, is guided by the electoral law. That law stipulates that voter-registration is open anytime except during the election period. This says our stations should be open every day for eligible people to come and register. It is therefore expected that during this time, as we prepare for the elections, only people who just turned 18 years and those who are 17 years but will be 18 at the time of elections, are the ones to register. But people, because of their own reasons, don’t normally come to register during the normal time. They will wait until elections are around the corner. But the IEC is prevented by the law to make an excuse of time-constraints in relation to voter-registration. Secondly, the electoral law says when parliament is dissolved, elections should be held within a period of 90 days. Which means the IEC is bound by the law to prepare and conduct elections within a period of at least three months. We all know the dissolution of Parliament is not under our control. It could be dissolved anytime, so the Commission should always be ready to conduct elections within three months thereafter.
LT: If it wasn’t for the law, would you still prefer that the snap elections be held in February, considering your preparedness?
Mokhochane: We had some discussion with Ntate (Cyril) Ramaphosa (the South African Deputy President who facilitated the Maseru Facilitation Declaration) and we said to him that we do not have a problem going to elections but that he should at least give us 10 months to prepare. But the question Ntate Ramaphosa asked us, and we were not able respond to it to his satisfaction, was that what do we have to say about the Constitution of Lesotho which says when Parliament is dissolved, elections should follow within 90 days. He even indicated Parliament’s dissolution was not under the Commission’s control and that it could happen anytime. He dismissed the 10-month period we requested saying he could maybe accept it if the situation wasn’t as it is in now. He said considering the situation, the Prime Minister can dissolve Parliament anytime. And he asked; what will you do? So now you see we have four full months before the elections in February. Actually, we have just one month of November before the election period starts in December. So during this month, we are bound to put together everything that is necessary to assist in the conduct of good elections come February, like we did in 2012.
LT: Are you saying you are on the same page with the politicians regarding the elections? Do they understand how speedily you have to move now to make the 2012 snap elections a success?
Mokhochane: It is through these strategies now whereby we engage the politicians. We inform them on every strategy of the Commission so that we are in this together. We also engage them in structures such as the Monitoring Committee, which comprises one member from each registered political party. We work with them through this committee apart from the Political Party Leaders’ Forum. We try as best as we can to engage them because if we don’t, things can go wrong. It is through these committees that we collaborate with each other and understand how important it is to move things fast. From now on, we are with them step-by-step. We would rather have as many meetings as possible to iron out any differences for the benefit of smooth elections. In the past, we succeeded to hold credible elections because we also engaged NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations). They are able to penetrate even the toughest terrain in the country to conduct voter education for the benefit of us all. We are still going to engage them even now. Our policy now as the IEC is that all factors which contributed to us conducting good elections in 2012, we should uphold them even now and never let go of them. Instead of leaving them, we would rather upgrade them.
LT: Tell us how the announcement of snap elections affects normal operations of the IEC.
Mokhochane: We are definitely affected. It means we have to double our efforts. It also says we should have more personnel. We have to work overtime, increase our resources. And all these need a good budget. Last week we met with the Finance Minister (Leketekete Ketso). We gave him the draft budget for the elections. But again we told him the draft budget was in relation to our proposal to Ntate Ramaphosa that the elections should be held at least in April next year. That was after he shot down our first request that elections be held in 10 months. We had to ask him now to allow us some more time to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new draft budget relating to elections being held in February.
LT: Can you tell us about that budget in terms of figures?
Mokhochane: Unfortunately we cannot disclose that budget before it has been approved by the Finance Minister.