Lesotho – Heading for a political train smash with SA in the driving seat

Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) says it is not ready for elections next month. Verified media reports on Thursday, January 8, quoted the IEC chairman, Justice Mahapela Lehohla, as stating that if the elections go ahead, credibility and legitimacy would be lost – and almost certainly plunging Lesotho into a real crisis. The contentious elections and the difficult date were the outcome of mediation by South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to resolve a deepening political row in Lesotho which followed claims of an attempted ‘coup’ (late in August 2014) and the disintegration of the coalition government led by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, leader of the All Basotho Congress (ABC). The hastily constructed deal overseen by Mr Ramaphosa required that Mr Thabane be spared a no-confidence vote in Parliament (which he had prorogued earlier in 2014 in order to avoid such a vote) and that fresh elections take place more than two years ahead of schedule – the date eventually set down was February 28. But now the IEC has predictably come to the conclusion that it cannot be done and that to hold an election risks creating more problems than it was designed to resolve.

Justice Lehohla told Lesotho media that the IEC was not ready due to the poor state of Lesotho’s voters’ roll (that has yet to be verified) as well as a critical shortage of funding required to bankroll a legitimate poll on such short notice. In our analysis of Lesotho during September and October last year (following the intervention by Mr Ramaphosa) we made the point that it remains open to serious doubt that an election could be organised as quickly as planned or that a poll would effectively resolve the current impasse. In addition, we argued that general elections by February 2015 would be a tall order, and that at least a year would be needed to organise this.

According to the Lesotho Times (January 8), Justice Lehohla’s concerns are highlighted in correspondence between him, Mr Thabane, and Minister of Law & Constitutional Affairs Haae Phoofolo in which the IEC chair states the voters’ roll needs expert intervention to clean up and highlights funding problems. While obvious questions arise as to why the IEC is raising these concerns now, barely weeks from the poll date, it is worth noting that Justice Lehohla told Mr Ramaphosa during the mediation process last year that he needed at least 10 months to organise a credible and legitimate election. Under arm twisting from Pretoria that timeframe was reduced to six months and then three, clearly placing massive pressure on the IEC that it now concedes it cannot manage. The decision to force Lesotho to hold fresh elections rather than force Mr Thabane to face a no confidence vote in his suspended Parliament was by any measure an extraordinary act and could easily lead to increased unrest in Lesotho. The possibility of a deeply flawed electoral process next month brings that possibility significantly closer.

WHY DO WE CARE? South Africa’s whole intervention in Lesotho has been shady and disingenuous from the start, and it now faces the possibility of engineering a political train smash. If the Lesotho poll fails for any one of a number of reasons, before, during or after voting day, then South Africa is going to have to accept a large chunk of responsibility. While other SADC heavyweights were on record stating the Lesotho ‘crisis’ was being exaggerated and that talk of a coup was ‘false’, it appeared that Mr Thabane was desperately attempting to engineer a SADC military intervention in order to stay in power. In fact, all that was needed to resolve the Lesotho ‘crisis’ was to force Mr Thabane to reconvene the Parliament he had prorogued and face the no-confidence vote he knew he would lose, but South Africa forced Lesotho into an agreement to hold early elections instead. That poll could now easily make matters worse. Mr Ramaphosa – clearly a candidate to succeed South African President Jacob Zuma – could also find himself personally damaged by the Lesotho debacle that appears to have no real agenda other than to keep Mr Thabane in power.

Analyst: Gary van Staden

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