Democracy 101: tiny Lesotho holds peaceful election

After a number of setbacks, with disputed elections leading to civil war, the African kingdom of Lesotho holds an election that boots the incumbent. A coalition government is in the works.

Jerome Delay/AP
Lesotho voters wait outside a polling station in the Machache district of Lesotho, some 40 miles east of the capital Maseru, on May 26.

Lesotho – the tiny mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa, with the best (ok, only) skiing in Africa, and one of the world's highest HIV infection rates – is getting recognition for something else: carrying out a peaceful election with a likely transfer of power. 

After elections held this week, a majority of Basotho voters turned against the 14-year rule of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, expressing frustration with empty promises. With no party enjoying a convincing majority, five opposition parties this week cobbled together Lesotho’s first-ever coalition government and claim at least 61 seats of the 120-member parliament – with an ex-foreign minister, Tom Thabane, tabbed as the new premier.

With its straightforward process and absence of violence thus far, Lesotho gives a lesson in democracy that many other African countries -- such as Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Cote D'Ivoire, Kenya, and even nearby Madagascar, Zimbabwe, and South Africa could learn to emulate, political observers say.

“If a sitting government actually leaves office gracefully, this will be a first for southern Africa,” says Nqosa Mahao, a coalition-government expert at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, who advised the major parties here prior to the May 26 elections. “It will put Lesotho on the map for its democratic credentials – and set a tone for the rest of the region.”

Setbacks in African elections -- notably the four-month civil war in Cote D'Ivoire in 2010, after the losing President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down -- have recently raised questions about whether democratic culture is actually taking root on the continent. Far too many elections feature heavy vote-rigging, intimidation, and sporadic bouts of violence, rendering the final vote count questionable in the eyes of election observers. Yet the election results in Lesotho shows that some African countries can hold world-class elections, even in a country with plenty of excuses for failure, including poverty and rugged terrain. 

Even seasoned Western observers found much to praise.

“After a number of African elections that haven’t gone so well, this is more good news that free and fair elections can be done in Africa, too,” says Hans Duynhouwer, the European Union’s ambassador to Lesotho. “A coalition will be a novelty for Lesotho, as well: it will mean a change in the political culture, where they’ll have to develop a consensual approach across party divides.”

The question now is whether Mosisili, who holds sway over the army and police, steps down peacefully or stubbornly clings to power – as so many African leaders before him. In 1998, post-election violence in Lesotho spawned widespread arson in Maseru, triggering a minor invasion by neighboring South Africa, which then saw the deaths of at least 58 Basotho and eight South African troops.

As of Thursday, it was reported that Mosisili had submitted his resignation, but that the constitution required his caretaker leadership until a new Parliament could be seated within 14 days of the election. That was followed by rumors swirling of Mosisili’s minions feverishly horse-trading to buy votes of individual MPs, hoping to lure enough across the aisle to form a majority of their own – an unsettling scenario for hundreds of international observers in the capital, many of them fellow Africans.

Mosisili “assured me he would be the first to congratulate the winner – and we pray that will be the case,” says Bakili Muluzi, lead observer from the Commonwealth, a union of 54 pro-democracy countries. Muluzi, who himself had a checkered 10-year run as Malawi's president, says he now advises others: “Once the people have spoken, that must be respected. For those who want to stay in power, when their time has come, I tell them there is always life after politics – perhaps even a better life.”

In many ways, Lesotho is an unlikely candidate for democratic trend-setter.

The former British protectorate gained independence in 1966, with subsequent decades marked by instability, military coup, one-party rule and sporadic violence – including political assassinations. However, the flames and bloodshed of 1998 scarred the public psyche. A startling reminder of that came on April 19, after a clash between pro-government and opposition activists injured 10 Basotho.

Unlike many post-colonial African societies, though, Lesotho has a single language – Sesotho – and one ethnic group, the Basotho people. In the absence of ethnic, religious, geographic or other divisions – ripe for leaders to exploit – the main rivalries here are political and personal.

Locals say this fuels an aversion to Basotho fighting Basotho, a desire for peaceful compromise, and a focus on the real issues that plague Lesotho. Beyond HIV, half the Basotho here dwell in poverty, three-quarters lack electricity, and 40 percent of the children are malnourished.

Of the two leading opposition parties, the first split from Mosisili six years ago, while the other peeled off just a few months ago. With these cleavages, Mosisili’s party claimed just 41 of 80 constituencies – mostly in the remote mountains and valleys, where the primary mode of transport is horse, donkey or on foot – while urbanites, women and younger Basotho largely rejected him.

This thirst for change was palpable on election day.

In village voting stations set up across the spectacular landscape, many Basotho waited for hours, orderly and patiently, to file one-by-one into dilapidated schools and churches. They cast votes in cardboard booths, under the watchful eye of election officials, local cadres from each party, police officers and occasionally, international observers. Their ballots were dropped into sealed plastic bins, which from the most inaccessible locales were then flown by army helicopter back to Maseru.

Likenkeng Khetleng, a grandmother of four who ekes out an existence peddling South African oranges in the village of Thaba Bosiu, waited three hours to vent her anger.

“I’ve suffered as much as I can endure,” she shouted. “I want to see the government changed – and to know I played a hand in it.”

Yet with such enthusiasm for these elections, some voters also hinted at the disillusionment and apathy that may follow if no real improvement comes over the next five years.

“You know how it feels when you want something so badly?” asked Joseph Mokhele, a jobless 20-year-old who voted in the impoverished outskirts of Maseru, as cows grazed nearby. “If none of these promises is fulfilled, I won’t vote next time. Because it will mean my vote makes no difference.”

From here, then, it seems the ball is in Mosisili’s court.

“The continent as a whole has made significant progress toward embracing liberal democracy and the rules of the game,” says Mahau, the South African law professor who is himself an ethnic Basotho. “If you have an electorate here that participates very peacefully, but there’s another setback, that would be a great betrayal. It would show that the leaders are not as mature as the followers.”

This story was edited after posting to correct the spelling of Nqosa Mahao's name.

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