While the hastily organised elections in Lesotho on February 28 were never going to produce an outright winner, the distorted results may bring even more instability than previously anticipated. The medium-to long-term prognosis for political stability and regime longevity is negative and major upheavals would appear to be a matter of when, not if.
The elections pitted All Basotho Convention (ABC) leader and incumbent Prime Minister Tom Thabane against the former prime minister and leader of the Democratic Congress (DC), Pakalitha Mosisili, with Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) leader and current Deputy Prime Minister Mothejoa Metsing the likely kingmaker. But the several smaller parties likely to win one or two seats were also going to be a significant factor, particularly in a shortened election campaign that would more likely than not, limit them to seats they already held.
The DC secured 47 seats (out of 120) in the National Assembly compared to the ABC’s 46 seats. The LCD (with 12 seats) has joined five other smaller parties to form a 65-seat majority coalition with Mr Mosisili its designated leader. The law now requires Mr Thabane to call for the election of a new speaker of Parliament and for a new government to be formed within 14 days. Mr Thabane must then request an audience with King Letsie III and resign his current post, after which Parliament will elect a new prime minister.
The elections were certainly free, the outcome credible, and the prospect of conflict in the short term limited, but the poll was not fair. This is due to the severe time limits that restricted campaigning, which allowed incumbency’s advantage to be maximised. Key issues that require urgent attention are the need to clearly define the roles and duties of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) – to limit its influence on politics; as well as those of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) that also clearly adopted an overtly political agenda. The side-lining of Prime Minster Thabane is likely to cool tensions between the two security arms for now, opening up an opportunity for constructive enfacement.
But while the short-term prognosis is relatively benign, the outcome of the elections and how the various major players shaped up is less than encouraging for the medium term. The political environment may well be characterised by new tensions, new coalition conflicts, new horse-trading and floor crossing and ultimately the potential collapse of the government, bringing with it a fresh wave of tension and unconstitutional actions.
The outcomes in 2012 and 2015 are not dissimilar and while the major members of the respective ruling and opposition coalitions in 2015 would tend to the more stable relationships, the top four party performers in the elections in the two camps will always need several minor parties to join up. The exercise is a recipe for personal blackmail tactics and political instability. The six minor parties with one to two votes each hold the key to the coalition and their combined and individual records are not promising.
The Marematlou Freedom Party (MFP) has only one member of the National Assembly, as does the National Independence Party (NIP). The Basotho Congress Party (BCP) is a shadow of its former self and riddled with infighting and squabbles over its considerable wealth – one MP. The Lesotho People’s Congress (LPC) broke away from the LCD, taking over 20 Members of Parliament (MPs), but now has just one left. The Reformed Congress of Lesotho (RCL) is a political unknown, while the Popular Front for Democracy (PFD) has a record of jumping coalition ships.
The DC-led coalition would have a better chance of holding together than the ABC one, but still the prospect of either currently constituted coalitions surviving a full term of office is extremely unlikely. The former Kenyan prime minister, Raila Odinga suggested a grand coalition (a coalition of all the major parties) that would obviously be significantly more stable and less open to manipulation and political blackmail, but it seems a bridge too far for the bitter rivals of Lesotho’s politics.
The military and its likely actions/inactions remain a key issue, but it has only intervened in the past when the elections resulted in prolonged instability or when the hand of apartheid South Africa was seen in the Maseru barracks, as was the case in 1986. There does not appear to be any significant risk of a military intervention in the wake of the February 2015 polls, more particularly as Mr Thabane will no longer be the prime minister.
We expect the political environment in the short term to stabilise fairly quickly and for the new regime to get on with the business of governing. The issues around the tension between the military and the police require urgent attention as that poses a significant danger, while we do not expect any further ‘coup-like activity’ and some settling of the business and investment environment. But the medium- to long-term prognosis is considerably less rosy – the quick fire elections did nothing to resolve underlying structural problems in the political system, particularly where stable government is concerned, and the speed of the poll may well have distorted the environment even further.
A coalition of multiple parties in an unsettled environment such as that in Lesotho is doomed to fail – it is just an issue of when and what the consequences will be. The inability of the parties concerned to heed the call of Mr Odinga to work out a grand coalition of all major parties, is going to haunt Lesotho, and by association South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), whose agendas were not always about political stability in Lesotho.
Gary Van Staden (Senior Political Analyst)