What price democracy?

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Counting the cost of the upcoming polls

Bereng Mpaki

LESOTHO will hold its third general elections in five years later this year after King Letsie III dissolved parliament on Tuesday in light of the passing of a no-confidence vote on Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s government last week.

The opposition alliance, which toppled Dr Mosisili’s government, had been agitating for a change of government in parliament to avoid another “costly” poll. The opposition bloc, which consists of the All Basotho Convention, Alliance of Democrats, Basotho National Party and Reformed Congress of Lesotho, argued that another election just two years after the previous one was not necessary since Lesotho was a parliamentary democracy.

However, the government and its supporters counter argued that the political parties needed to be given a new mandate by the electorate in light of changes in political party configurations in the National Assembly. King Letsie III decided to dissolve parliament citing the need to avoid a “possible constitutional crises” after Dr Mosisili advised him to do so.

With the 28 February 2015 snap elections having gobbled up about M240 million in taxpayers’ funds, this year’s polls could rise up to M300 million if inflation and other unanticipated costs are factored in.

However, given the plethora of challenges the country needs to address such as food insecurity, chronic poverty and lack of infrastructure, opponents of the holding of the elections have argued they were tantamount to throwing money down the drain.

For their part, proponents of the polls have pointed to the plebiscite’s potential to bring to an end the political instability that has derailed Lesotho’s economic development.

They also highlighted the numerous business opportunities and jobs that were created during the elections process.

In the 2015 polls, 500 people were hired as mobile registration operators, 400 voter educators, 3 000 display clerks and 3 000 registration centre personnel. Voting station personnel were around 12 500.

In addition to the almost 20 000 people employed over the three month elections period, more than a thousand vehicles were hired from locals for various purposes.

Conversely, the envisaged M300 million cost of the elections would be enough to bankroll the operations of a number of government ministries for the entire year.

During last year’s national budget, M108 million was allocated to the Gender, Youth, Sports and Recreation ministry, while M39 million was allocated to the Ministry of Mining. The Small Business Development ministry was allocated M150 million with the three ministries’ budgets covered by the M300 million likely cost of the elections.

That amount would be also enough to fund the Social Development ministry budget which was M253 million or the Ministry of Tourism and Environment budget which was M158 million for the 2016/17 financial year.

The M300 million would also go a long way in mitigating the food insecurity effects of the 2015/16 El Nino-induced drought on Lesotho which has required the assistance of the country’s development partners.

At the beginning of the current financial year, the funding needed to ensure Lesotho’s food security was M429 million. But it has since gone down to around M200 million after the United States, European Union and Botswana donated M185 million, M35 million and foodstuffs respectively last year.

By allocating the money earmarked for polls to plug the M200 million deficit, Lesotho could have ensured its food security.

The amount to be used for the elections is almost equivalent to the M280 million the Nien Hsing Group invested in Lesotho recently for the construction of a 13 000 square metre textile factory shell and acquisition with machinery, which is expected to employ up to 6 000 people on a permanent basis.

According to property experts, such an amount would also likely be enough to construct a shopping complex slightly smaller than Maseru Mall and create 2 000 permanent jobs.

Junior Chamber International Lesotho President, Bokang Molelle, told the Lesotho Times he would have used the funds to support small enterprise development.

“As young people, our main challenge is lack of access to the funding necessary to grow our businesses. The next government needs to create an enabling environment for us to access funding more easily,” he said.

“They could help to finance business start-ups by subsidizing their rentals for office spaces for an agreed period of time. Start-ups are required to have office space for them to obtain a sublease required for a trader’s license. How do I pay the M1 500 needed for rent when I have not yet commenced my business operations?

“So, that money earmarked for funding the elections could have been used for supporting small enterprise development.”

An informal trader in Maseru, who requested anonymity, said the holding of elections could only provide temporary employment for a relatively few people.

“I think elections provide jobs for only a short while. But, using that money to support entrepreneurs by getting their businesses off the ground could have gone a long way in reducing the level of unemployment in the country,” the informal trader said.

He also pointed out that most roads around the country were in a decrepit state making it hard for people and businesses to reach remote areas.

“Investing the M300 million likely to be used for the elections in the road infrastructure could have been a good starting point since more money would be needed to rehabilitate the country’s road network,” added the informal trader.

However, former Basotho Enterprise Development Corporation CEO Robert Likhang has begged to differ, saying the M300 million for polls would be well spent if it resulted in political stability.

“If going for elections will bring about political stability, then I think it would be money spent wisely,” he said.

“The kind of political environment in this country is not conducive for many businesses to thrive.”

Mr Likhang, who is also a business consultant and life coach, also pointed out that the reforms of the security, parliamentary, constitutional and media sectors among others that the government had embarked on should continue to ensure lasting peace and stability.

 

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