THE small landlocked kingdom of Lesotho, a mountainous former British colony surrounded by South Africa, has taken a faltering step toward democracy after 23 years of dictatorship and military rule.
The Basotho Congress Party (BCP), an opposition group that was outlawed in 1970 after winning Lesotho's last general election, has won the country's first democratic ballot since then. The ballot was judged free and fair by about 100 international observers.
But the Basotho National Party (BNP), the BCP's main rival, which outlawed the BCP after its 1970 poll victory, rejected the result on the grounds that the ballot was "generally against every tenet and every spirit of fairness and equity."
The poll date was postponed several times, and the March 27 elections were marked by delays in the opening of ballot stations. But the voting took place in a calm and orderly atmosphere.
The BNP's rejection of the result has raised fears of a recurrence of the kind of violence that swept the country after the 1970 poll. It also raises doubts about whether the Military Council, which has ruled the country since a 1986 coup ended the 16-year dictatorship of Chief Leabua Jonathan, will fully relinquish power to the elected government or will continue to wield power behind the scenes.
The BCP appeared to be heading for a landslide victory yesterday after winning all 34 constituencies that had announced result by midday. There are 65 contested constituencies represented in a 243-seat Parliament. Even the leader of the BNP, former Justice Minister Evaristus Sekhonyana, lost his Quithing constituency about 85 miles south of the capital, Maseru.
NTSU Mokhehle, the BCP leader who spent 20 years in exile during the dictatorship of Chief Jonathan and two military rulers, appears to have made a clean sweep based on popular sentiment reserved for returned exiles.
The political manifestoes of the two parties hold few major differences. The main election issues were the ending of military rule, which both major parties agree on; the desirability of reinstating Lesotho's deposed monarch; and the issue of incorporation into South Africa - one which cuts across party lines.
Lesotho trade unionists argue that Sotho men, most of whom work in South Africa, spend their lives contributing to the prosperity of their mighty neighbor but receive nothing in return when then retire to their homes in Lesotho.
But Lesotho nationalist sentiment and fears about South Africa's uncertain political future have prevented a resolution of the incorporation debate.
One of the first tasks of a new government will be to resolve the constitutional crisis surrounding the position of the monarchy. Former military ruler Gen. Metsing Lekhanya stripped King Moshoeshoe of his powers in 1990 and sent him into exile. He then filled the throne with the king's eldest son, Letsie III.
In recent weeks, King Letsie has indicated that he wanted to return the throne to his father, who claims that the military government was unconstitutional in reducing the monarchy to a purely ceremonial role.
But the ruling Military Council has strongly resisted any move to bring back King Moshoeshoe. Some argued that there was no point in having an election before the crisis over the monarchy was resolved. Others argued that only a democratically elected government can resolve the issue.