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Another coalition government after free, fair elections

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Picture: Molise Molise/AFP – Lesotho Revolution for Prosperity party leader Sam Matekane (centre), Alliance of Democrats deputy leader Professor Ntoi Rapapa (left), and Movement for Economic Change leader Selibe Mochoboroane after announcing their alliance in Maseru last month.

By Katherine Bebington

On October 7, 2022, the Kingdom of Lesotho held general elections against the backdrop of uncertainty surrounding the passing of electoral reforms and fears of further instability.

The 2022 elections saw a number of election observer groups present in the kingdom, including the AU, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the EU to observe elections which were contested by more than 50 political parties.

Lesotho has a multi-member proportional system of elections that sees 80 members of the 120 seat National Assembly being elected by a first-past-the-post system, while the remaining 40 seats are elected using proportional representation.

However, the kingdom has struggled with political stability and the curbing of the military’s incursions into civilian politics.

As a result, Lesotho began an electoral reform process, which was guided by SADC, more than a decade ago, with the aim of ensuring greater political stability.

The climax of this reform process was the so-called omnibus bill, which saw a number of small bills condensed into one larger bill with the aim of passing all the reforms at once.

The omnibus bill came about as members of Parliament (MPs) were running out of time to pass the reforms in time for the 2022 general elections.

The omnibus bill dealt with a number of issues, among them the issue of floor crossing, coalitions and the forming of governments and the competencies of the prime minister.

As it so happened, parliament was unable to pass the omnibus bill and the constitutional reform bill before parliament was dissolved, raising concerns about the running of the upcoming elections.

In order to pass the omnibus bill, Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro asked King Letsie III to declare a state of emergency, which would therefore allow parliament to reconvene in order to pass the bills.

The king declared the state of emergency and parliament sat again, passing the omnibus bill.

However, the legitimacy of the state of emergency was challenged in the courts, with the High Court of Lesotho declaring the state of emergency unconstitutional, meaning that the recalling of parliament was outside the authority of the king.

In addition, it also meant that parliament did not have the constitutional authority to pass the two bills that it passed under the state of emergency.

The court concluded that, “[t]he disappointment when a bill of popular interest fails to be passed into a law cannot be equated to an imminent and actual threat to the life of a nation” and that the requirements to declare a state of emergency were not met.

As a result of the judgment handed down by the court, the reform bills passed during the sitting under the state of emergency were not valid, in essence resulting in the failure of the reforms process and the elections being held under the old constitutional framework for elections.

More than one government has tried to pass the reform bills, but each of them has ultimately failed to get the bills passed through parliament, as there were disagreements amongst the various parties.

While the reform process dictated that the new framework should be in place for the next general elections, the failure to pass these reforms has meant that efforts aimed at avoiding political instability are not in place, and Lesotho remains at risk of the same instability that has plagued the kingdom for years.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the framework that would govern the election, and the effective collapse of the reform process, elections went ahead on October 7, with the AU, SADC and the EU all present to observe the elections.

There were no reports of any violence during the elections, quashing any fears of electoral violence.

Despite the elections being free and fair, the EU observer mission did question the accuracy of the voters roll, with some voters being turned away from the stations, reports of errors in voters’ data and the possibility of the names of deceased citizens being included in the voters roll.

SADC shared similar concerns about the voters roll and noted the complaints in the delay of the publishing of the final voters roll.

However, the EU did find that the election day was largely peaceful, well organised and professionally managed.

While questions about the voters roll were raised, perhaps more worryingly for Lesotho’s democracy was the low voter turnout to the elections.

The 2022 elections saw an all-time low turnout of 38 percent of registered voters, 9 percent lower than the 47 percent turnout for the 2017 elections.

The low voter turnout could be as a result of a number of factors present in Lesotho society that could be speculated upon, but it does lend itself to suggestions that there is much political discontent among the Basotho.

Nonetheless, as was perhaps expected, no party was able to win an outright majority in the elections.

The political newcomer, the Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) party, led by one of the country’s richest men, Sam Matekane and formed only seven months prior to the election was the party that prevailed with the most votes, winning 56 seats in the House.

The Democratic Congress party came second, while the incumbent All Basotho Convention came third and saw a large drop in electoral support, winning 40 seats less than in 2017.

The RFP has been able to form a coalition government with the Alliance of Democrats and the Movement for Economic Change, which received the fifth and sixth highest number of votes respectively. The coalition has thus cleared the way for Matekane to become the next prime minister of Lesotho.

As Lesotho prepares for another coalition government, the question remains if this coalition will be able to deliver the political stability that the kingdom has sought for many years.

Questions also remain over the reform process and if the electoral and constitutional reform bills will be passed by this parliament.

The new government is also coming to power at a time of difficult economic conditions as the Kingdom continues to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the positives of this election must not be overlooked, as yet another African country was able to hold free and fair elections, with no reports of violence, while a governing coalition was also formed fairly expediently.

The new prime minister and government need only build on the positive outcomes of this election.

* Katharine Bebington is a programme officer at Accord. The article was first published in: accord.org.za.