Lethoso: Focus on Challenges to Multiparty Democracy
UN Integrated Regional Information Networks

Published January 15th 2004 in AllAfrica.com


Lesotho remains a fragile democracy despite electoral reforms designed to strengthen its political system, a South African political think-tank has argued.

A new report by the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA) argues that steps towards deepening democracy in the tiny country continued to be undermined by ongoing social and economic problems, which could serve to reverse some of the gains made so far.

The report, "The Road to Democratic Consolidation in Lesotho, Reforms and Challenges", noted that the political culture remained adversarial, and problems of political violence and poor accountability should not be regarded as solved.

The 1993 and 1998 polls in Lesotho were marred by political violence and threats of military coups, and while the last general election in 2002 was relatively calm, the losing party still contested the results in court.

Changes to the country's electoral system, from first-past-the-post (FPTP) to mixed member proportional representation (MMP), and restructuring of the armed forces, had substantially reduced the risk of election unrest. But EISA said there was a need for continued vigilance.

The Basotholand Congress Party (BCP) won a landslide victory in 1993, when the FPTP electoral system allowed it to capture every seat in the 65-seat National Assembly, despite the fact that 25 percent of the vote went to other parties.

The BCP took office, but with opposition Basotho National Party (BNP) loyalists entrenched in the army and civil service, the ruling party struggled to impose its authority and clashed with the security forces over a number of issues, including army compensation. In response to these grievances, a faction of the army mutinied in early 1994.

Following efforts by the international community to resolve the crisis, the BCP was restored to power.

The 1998 elections returned similar results, with the Lesotho Congress Party (LCD), a breakaway faction of the BCP, winning 79 of 80 seats. A judicial enquiry into the results later found that election documentation was in disarray and the legitimacy of the results could not be accurately judged. The LCD found itself unable to control the security forces, which were still loyal to the BNP and, pre-empting a possible military coup, called on neighbouring South Africa for help.

South Africa and Botswana, under the banner of the Southern African Development Community, sent troops to disperse protesters and disarm disloyal soldiers. Although they were successful, it was not without resistance from sections of the army, and ensuing looting destroyed much of the capital, Maseru.

After negotiations with the opposition, the government agreed to the MMP electoral system and elections were held in May 2002. Once again, 79 out 80 seats were returned to the LCD, but all 40 proportional representation seats were awarded to the opposition, including 22 to the BNP.

Despite the optimism following electoral reform and the peaceful outcome of these elections, opposition parties have voiced frustration over their effectiveness in parliament and "pessimism about winning elections in the future". EISA noted that this dissatisfaction could erode improvements in tolerance achieved by the transition.

An issue of ongoing concern was the strong position of the ruling party in parliament - the LCD still holds nearly two-thirds of the seats in parliament and can make decisions without consulting the opposition, while parliament has few committees and is frequently not in session at all.

The report observed that the role of opposition parties was seriously constrained by MP's lack of capacity and the abscence of institutional arrangements, such as portfolio committees, required for the effective functioning of parliament.

Another contentious political issue was the introduction of local government structures. The bill has not yet been introduced in parliament, but the authority of these structures would come into direct conflict with that of Lesotho's chiefs, until now the ruling voice at local level.

Political power in Lesotho is most often concentrated in the hands of a few leaders. The lack of intraparty democracy means that party members have little or no control over their leadership,EISA noted.

"Although political parties do hold congresses, these congresses are in most cases mechanisms for entrenching political control over the party, instead of mechanisms for holding leaders accountable and consulting with party membership on matters of national interest, party strategy and tactics. Openness and transparency in the conduct of the party operations ... party financial statements, and available records on sources of income ... are generally absent," the report said.

The lack of intraparty democracy is also reflected in the under-representation of women in the higher echelons of political parties, which directly impacts on the representation of women in parliament. Out of 120 seats, just 13 are occupied by women.

"Lesotho's new leadership must, however, understand that democratisation goes far beyond the essential formal elements of a democracy - elections, multiparty systems and institutions - which are not sufficient to guarantee broad-based participatory democracy," EISA said.

Besides the administrative shortcomings, the report found that the potential for future conflict also lay in the country's economic difficulties. The formal economy employs just 50,000 people, a large portion of them in the bureaucracy, the security forces, or other organs of state. Interviews with civil society representatives found that politics in Lesotho was seen primarily as a competition for jobs.

"Reliance on seats in parliament for employment raises the personal stakes of political competition in Lesotho, contributing to an adversarial political culture and increasing the likelihood of recourse to violence," noted the report.

Moreover, competition over scarce resources had increased the tendency towards factionalism, not only between but within Lesotho's political and governance institutions, the report commented.