May 25, 2002

LESOTHO: Elections finally held

Thousands of Basotho thronged around polling stations waiting to vote in Lesotho's parliamentary election long before the polls opened at 7am on Saturday, May 25, 2002. About 900.000 voters are expected at the polls. Many voters slept at the polling centres to ensure an early vote. Prime Minister Pakadita Mosisili flew to vote in his home village of Tsoelike in the south eastern Quacha's Nek district in a Lesotho defence force air squadron helicopter.

South African President Thabo Mbeki in a statement on Friday, May 24, urged the citizens of Lesotho to turn out in "large numbers and in peace". "It is our fervent hope that a durable and secure political system will emerge in Lesotho so that this nation can play a substantial role in Africa's unfolding destiny against the background of the New Partnership for Africa's Development and the increasingly real prospect of an African Renaissance," Mbeki said.

It is the first general election since the disputed poll of 1998 that forced a Southern African Development Community (SADC) military intervention. Those election results, in which the ruling Lesotho Congress Party (LCD) won 79 out of 80 seats in parliament, were rejected by the three main opposition parties who alleged the polls were rigged. Hundreds of people demonstrated for weeks outside King Letsie III's palace, demanding that the government step down and hold new elections. Widespread arson and looting turned the capital, Maseru, into a ghost town amid a rebellion by members of the armed forces. The Prime Minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, called for a SADC (Southern African Development Community) military intervention to restore law and order. Lesotho's first past the post (FPTP) electoral system meant that a significant portion of people who voted for opposition parties were left with just one representative in parliament. An Interim Political Authority (IPA) was established, with representatives from all the 12 parties that contested the 1998 election, and a new electoral system was devised. Voters will now be asked to cast two ballots for a party and a constituency candidate in a mix of the proportional representation and the FPTP systems. The number of seats in parliament have been increased to 120.

Nineteen parties are contesting the election. Lesotho's population is just over two million people, and about 920 000 citizens are registered to vote. The ruling LCD, led by Mosisili, and the Basotho National Party (BNP) led by Justine Metsing Lekhanya appear to be the main contestants for this election. Other parties that are set to figure prominently are the Lesotho People's Congress, led by Kelebone Maope, and the Basotho Congress Party, led by Tseliso Makhakhe, IPA executive secretary Malefetsane Nkhale siad. "On Sunday, May 19, the political parties held their final rallies and the LCD and BNP rallies were by far the biggest rallies," he said. Nkhahle said unemployment was one of the main issues of the election.

According to official statistics, half the population lives in poverty, although a UN Development Programme paper states that independent estimates range as high as 70 percent. Official unemployment figures vary, ranging from 30 percent to 45 percent.

HIV/AIDS is a major concern and the country is still in the early stages of responding to the pandemic. Unemployment, the devaluation of the country's currency (the loti) and low agricultural production, due to a number of factors including the lack of arable land, have conspired to force the Prime Minister to declare a state of famine in the country and appeal for urgent food aid. Despite hitches with the printing of ballots, and some cloak and dagger machinations regarding their distribution, preparations have been relatively smooth. (IRIN, MAIL&GUARDIAN)

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