January 15, 2004
Lethoso: Focus on Challenges to
UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
January 15, 2004
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
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
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
Moreover, competition over scarce resources had
increased the tendency towards factionalism, not only between but
within Lesotho's political and governance institutions, the report