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Political reform central to consolidating democracy in Lesotho

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Picture: Molise Molise / AFP / Taken on October 11, 2022 – 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, right, after they announced their alliance in Maseru on October 11, last year. The greater danger of political and governance uncertainty is that citizens may start to lose hope in democratic processes, the writers says.

By Katharine Bebington and Nkanyiso Simelane

Lesotho held national elections last year against the backdrop of a reform process that parliament could not pass before the elections. The reconvening of a dissolved parliament under a state of emergency in order to pass the omnibus bill proved to be unsuccessful.

While the omnibus bill was passed during this reconvened sitting, something that parliament was unable to do during an ordinary sitting, the state of emergency was declared unconsti-tutional and thus the passing of the bill was voided.

This political uncertainty in the build-up to the election, however, did not translate into an uncertain result. Political newcomers, the Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) party, led by Sam Matekane, won 56 of the 120 parliamentary seats, falling just short of the 61 seats needed to govern with an outright majority. This was one of the strongest showings in an election by any political party in decades. Despite the strong showing from the RFP, the party has found it difficult to fully assert its authority.

At the inauguration of Prime Minister Sam Matekane, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) special envoy to Lesotho’s facilitation team and President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, welcomed the new government’s commitment to finalising the work of the reform processes and hoped that the bill would lay a “solid foundation for the future of the Basotho”.

One year after the elections, however, parliament has still not been able to pass the omnibus bill despite the hope that it would be one of the major priorities of the new government. One of the challenges concerns the RFP’s review of the reforms, especially since the party was not in parliament at the time the bill was drafted.

The government has indicated its intention to segregate the bill into three parts instead of passing it in its entirety, as had been the intention of the previous government. The current intention is to split the bill as follows: reforms that can be enacted into law in parliament with a simple majority, reforms that would require a two-thirds majority to entrench clauses in the constitution, and reforms that would require a referendum for approval.

This decision has resulted in delays and has raised concerns, including that the bill may not be passed and that some reforms are interlinked, where the passing of one provision may directly affect the other. Furthermore, reforms that may be presented to the public via a referendum could take several months, at minimum to come into effect, should the reforms be endorsed by the vote. This is because the referendum would require logistical planning for the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) as well as a campaign period for various stakeholders. These delays and uncertainty around the outcomes of the reform process means that the issues that it was designed to address will persist.

Recently, Matekane has faced political challenges to his authority. The parliament in Lesotho had an extended winter recess, only reopening in mid-October. There was speculation that one of the reasons for the long recess was due to the Matekane’s position being under threat. This came to fruition when a group of 64 Members of Parliament (MPs) called a press conference to indicate their intentions to table a motion of no confidence in Matekane, an action that, if successful, would topple his government.

The fact that there were 64 MPs ready to vote against the government meant that members of the Prime Minister’s own party, the RFP, were prepared to vote against him. It is believed that some members of the governing party are disgruntled that they did not receive positions in the government that they want, and others are dissatisfied with the way the party is being run.

The motion of no confidence was delayed as the government went to court to challenge the section of the amendment to the constitution on which the motion was based. The government has asked the court to delay the motion in order for parliament to complete the reform process, with one of the reforms restricting circumstances under which a government can face such a motion.

However, it is unlikely that the government will prevail in court, as any party can bring a motion of no confidence regardless of the status of the reform process. The challenge at the courts is only likely to buy the government time, which it could use to win back the support of disgruntled MPs.

In the meantime, the leadership of Lesotho’s security sector have once again dipped their toes into civilian politics, coming out in support of the prime minister. The Commissioner of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service, the Commander of Lesotho Defence Force, and the National Security Service Director released a statement accusing the opposition of acting selfishly and suggesting they might intervene to save the government. Local press in Lesotho termed this action by the security heads as an effective coup d’état against any future government that might be formed if Matekane’s government should collapse.

Lesotho has a history of military intervention in politics, and some of the reforms were aimed at curbing their intervention. This latest action from the security sector suggests that this phenomenon has yet to be effectively curbed, and the threat of military or security intervention in the politics of Lesotho persists, ultimately destabilising politics in security.

The current challenge is also a reminder of the threat that possible floor crossing has to government stability. One of the reforms could prohibit floor crossing for the first three years after an election. However, as this reform has not been passed, there is a threat of disgruntled members of the RFP crossing the floor. A loss of six MPs would be enough to collapse the current coalition and bring with it political uncertainty in the kingdom.

Findings from a recent field research mission undertaken by ACCORD revealed that the stalling of reforms threatens the future of governance and political stability in Lesotho. There is increasing impatience about the slow pace of reforms, considering the investment and interest of foreign donors in the SADC-initiated process. Furthermore, some members of civil society have lost the hope that was present at the beginning of the reform process. As the delays persist, civil society is becoming sceptical about whether the contents of the bill will still reflect the original aspirations and inputs from the public consultation processes.

The greater danger of political and governance uncertainty is that citizens may start to lose hope in democratic processes. A case in point is the local government elections in Lesotho of September 29, where public participation and enthusiasm were poor. Another threat to continued delays and uncertainty is that the security sector may become more decisive and take advantage of these governance loopholes.

Ultimately, the reform process is key to further consolidating democracy in Lesotho. Therefore, it is important that the bill reaches its initially intended conclusion to make the aspirations of Basotho a reality.

Bebington and Simelane are researchers at ACCORD. This article was first published on ACCORD