April 24, 2002

Focus on May election

Lesotho's general election in May 2002, the first since the disputed poll of 1998 which plunged the country into chaos, will be a test of the extent to which the electoral system has been democratised.

Nobody in Maseru wants a repeat of the anarchy that followed the 1998 election. Businesses in the capital Maseru were looted and burned, chaos replaced law and order. The country's economy took a huge knock from which it has still not recovered. Official statistics are that unemployment is at 30 percent while 50 percent of the population, estimated at two million, live in poverty.

Lesotho's electoral system at the time, the first past the post (FPTP) system, was seen as the cause of the crisis and has now been replaced. In 1998 the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) won 60 percent of the vote, and walked away with 79 seats in the 80-member National Assembly. Smaller opposition parties such as the Basotho National Party (BNP), Basotholand Congress Party (BCP) and Marematlou Freedom Party (MFP), that combined captured just under 40 percent of the vote, won just one seat in parliament. The FPTP system meant the voice of a substantial portion of the electorate would be a single BNP representative.

The BNP, BCP and MFP formed an alliance and encouraged their supporters to demonstrate against the result. Unrest followed and Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, faced with a mutinee by troops sympathetic to the opposition, called for a Southern African Development Community (SADC) intervention. The intervention was led by South African forces who were then followed by troops from Botswana. Law and order was restored, but when the cordite cleared several people, including soldiers, were dead and so was Maseru's commercial district.

The Interim Political Authority (IPA) was established and, although originally meant to exist for up to 18 months by which time another election was to be held, four years on has become something of a parallel parliament. Within the IPA are representatives of most political parties. "The events of 1998 were traumatic for the country. We have now brought in a system that will ensure that even the minority parties are going to have some representation in parliament," Malefetsane Nkhahle, executive secretary of the IPA said.

The new electoral system, hammered out by the IPA with input from various role-players, is now a mixture of the FPTP and Proportional Representation (PR) systems. Now 80 seats are to be won on the FPTP system and 40 are up for grabs on the PR system. This means that even the smaller parties can win seats in the National Assembly and the significant portion of voters who rejected the 1998 election can now be assured that their voices will be heard. The IPA is to be dissolved the day after the announcement of the official result of the 25 May poll.

The run-up to the election has not been without controversy. The question of indemnity from prosecution for those, including some candidates in the upcoming election, involved in activities of 1998, is high on the agenda for the IPA. Nkhahle said the issue was being discussed within the IPA and a request would be made to government to consider announcing a general amnesty. This would go a long way to ease tensions and concerns of a pre or post election backlash from the ruling party, Nkhahle said. Another hiccup was that the LCD successfully brought an application to the High Court that nullified the previous nomination of candidates cut-off date of 5 April. This now allows the LCD and any other party that wishes to do so, to nominate candidates until Thursday, April 25. A consequence of the court ruling, on Monday, April 22, was that political parties could not get campaign funding that the Electoral Commission (IEC) was to provide. The IEC could not give parties campaign funds until it knew who was standing in which constituency, this was one of the reasons why it had designated 5 April as the nomination cut-off date. Campaigning has thus been restricted for the most part to the weekend rally's. Only a handful of posters adorn a few light poles in the streets of Maseru. Said IPA's Nkhahle: "The political parties are not wealthy, they have to scrape around for funds."

Despite the snags, postponing the election is out of the question, said Nkhahle: "By 25 May it is fairly winterish. This means the days are very short and with this new [electoral] model, two ballots instead of one, getting voters [through the voting process] at polling stations means there are going to be fairly long queues. If we postponed, the winter days would be far too short, the sun rises at 07:00 and sets at 16:30, so you would need two days of voting." An additional day of voting would complicate the logistical arrangements. It would require securing the ballot boxes overnight. "The idea is to do the polling, close the stations and immediately start the count and immediately announce the result," Nkhahle said.

The issues that are set to dominate the campaign agenda are job creation, HIV/AIDS, education and agricultural productivity. "If you don't have HIV/AIDS in your manifesto you may as well not be in the election," Nkhahle said. Another dimension to the upcoming election is a lack of "any ideological difference between parties, it's a question of who do you think you can trust more to run the country", said a source close to the process. Of the 19 parties contesting the election, 18 parties had fielded candidates by Wednesday, April 24. (IRIN)

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