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Lesotho: New PM’s reform agenda will test coalition arrangements

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Picture Credit: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko – Supporters of Lesotho’s Revolution For Prosperity (RFP), a recently founded party led by Sam Matekane, celebrate Lesotho’s parliamentary election in the capital Maseru, Lesotho, October 8, 2022

By Dr Sizo Nkala

Lesotho went to the polls on October 7 to elect a new parliament. The outcome of the elections was widely unexpected. A seven-month-old party, the Revolution for Prosperity (RFP), led by influential businessman Sam Matekane, emerged as the winner with 56 of 120 parliamentary seats.

The new party upset the two dominant parties: the All Basotho Convention and the Democratic Congress. The victory is even more remarkable considering that no party had managed to win more than 55 seats in the past three elections.

Having fallen short of an absolute majority, the RFP has since entered into a coalition with the Alliance for Democrats and the Movement for Economic Change to form a government that will replace the outgoing All Basotho Convention (ABC) government, which had been in power since 2017. Matekane’s government will be the fifth in 10 years.

The vagaries of coalition politics have seen governments capsizing in rapid succession, plunging the country even deeper into political instability. The new government has its work cut out for it as the country battles with a faltering economy, widespread food insecurity as a result of droughts and an on-and-off political reform process.

The unemployment rate stands at almost 25% while the poverty rate in the rural areas where the majority of people live is over 60%. The RFP has also cited crime as one of its major election issues. With the third-highest murder rate in the world, the country is the murder capital of Africa.

Foremost on its agenda would be resuscitating the reform process that has been eluding the kingdom for 10 years. Calls for reforms intensified in 2014 when the excessive powers of the prime minister came under the spotlight after prime minister at the time, Thomas Thabane’s rash and politically motivated dismissal of the country’s chief justice and the security chiefs.

This was seen as undue executive interference in independent institutions and a gross violation of the principle of separation of powers. In 2015, the murder of the commander of the Lesotho Defence Forces (LDF) saw political tensions deteriorate to the point of triggering intervention by the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

After its investigation, the regional body added its voice to calls for constitutional reform. The National Reforms Authority (NRA), which came into existence in 2019, was tasked with codifying and organising the decisions of the Multi-Stakeholder National Dialogue, which decided on the content of the reforms.

The NRA submitted the omnibus bill to parliament before it was terminated in April this year. The omnibus bill proposes fundamental reforms to the prime minister’s jurisdiction, parliament, the judiciary, and the security sector. However, parliament was dissolved before it could vote on the reform bill, meaning that the recently concluded elections were held under the old constitution.

Matekane’s administration is likely to prioritise the completion of the reform process. However, this will not be an easy task. The incoming PM must first find a point of convergence with his coalition partners on the way forward.

The task will get even harder when he goes to parliament to solicit votes from bitter opponents on reforms that need a two-thirds majority to pass.

For all his business acumen, Matekane is still a political novice. It remains to be seen if he will be able to form an entente with his political rivals to push the reform agenda forward. Nonetheless, the Lesotho election result is the latest manifestation of a trend that is increasingly gaining traction in the SADC region.

The people of the region are fast losing faith in the political establishment, which has failed to address their plight. In Malawi and Zambia, the incumbents were resoundingly voted out in 2020 and 2021 respectively.

In Angola, the ruling party narrowly avoided defeat in the elections held earlier this year when they won by a slim margin. And this is after using state apparatus to harass the opposition parties.

Zimbabwe and South Africa will be going to the polls in next year and in 2024. The people of these countries have only known one ruling party since the advent of democracy. In both countries, the incumbent parties have presided over deteriorating socio-economic conditions.

The election results in Malawi, Zambia and Lesotho will give the opposition parties in the two countries hope that political change is possible.

As such, the significance of the Lesotho election outcome goes beyond the mountain kingdom’s borders. It may well be a bellwether of imminent political shifts at the regional level.

Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies.