Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lesotho: May 26 General Elections - The Damaging Effects of Floor–crossing and Simmering Hostilities

Source: ISS

Dimpho Motsamai, Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria

The United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, recently described the political situation in Lesotho, as “worrying” during a visit to Angola, calling on Angola as chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to assess developments there, ahead of polls in May 2012. Lesotho has a long history of fractious politics and floor crossing preceding elections, which mostly contribute to political instability, destabilisation of political parties and parliamentary governance in general. The country, widely branded a constitutional monarchy, operates as a parliamentary democracy with a dualistic governance system, where the King is the Head of State by virtue of his hereditary traditional status, and the Prime Minister, appointed by the King from a party with a majority of seats in parliament, heads the government. May 26 will witness the country’s fifth general election for its 120 member National Assembly, since a return to electoral democracy in 1993.

Up until last month, polls were anticipated to avert the flux of floor crossing that preceded the 2002 and 2007 elections. The current “worrying’ political controversy has to do with the defection by the Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili on February 28 2012, from the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) to his newly created Democratic Congress (DC) party along with 44 LCD members. Mosisili was reportedly aggrieved by internal feuding within the ruling party. The move effectively relegated the LCD that had won a narrow majority of 62 seats in the 2007 parliamentary elections to opposition status. The party, in power since 1997, had formed an alliance with the National Independent Party (NIP) in 2007 giving the LCD/NIP alliance a total of 82 seats in the National Assembly. The DC was officially declared the new government by the Speaker of Parliament Nthloi Motsamai, listing her name among the 44 defectors to the DC, amid objections from opposition parties who construe the move as unconstitutional, flawed and a violation of parliamentary procedures.

The Prime Minister’s defection and the creation of the DC reflect the country’s historical trend of party formation mostly emanating from political tugs of-war and intra party factions. The LCD is a product of floor crossing itself, when in 1997, 41 of its members including the Prime Minister defected from the then ruling Basutoland Congress Party (BCP) to create the LCD. The LCD breakaway was a direct result of BCP failure to solve intra party problems. Like Mosisili’s DC, the LCD breakaway was initiated by the then party leader and Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle. Also significant is the fact that prior to the 2007 elections, 16 LCD members crossed the floor joining a newly formed All Basotho Convention (ABC) party. At the time, however, the move led to volatility in the legislature because of its impact on the National Assembly seat allocation, triggering calls for a snap election. The main difference now is that the country’s King Letsie III officially dissolved parliament on 15 March 2012, and despite parliamentary acrimony the Prime Minister retains the post in the dissolution period.

While the Lesotho Constitution allows for floor crossing in parliament in line with parliamentary rules and regulations (Standing Orders), it has become a dominant and most preferred modality by members of parliament (MPs) to address internal cohesion challenges and leadership spats in their parties. Since elected MPs represent their constituencies, the observation in the Lesotho polity is that post the floor crossing, their constituency support is not always guaranteed. There are past instances were loss of constituencies at the polls has been met with rejection and election outcomes are contested, leading to political violence. The motivations for this kind of party mobility have been questioned and there is a large public perception in Lesotho that the recent floor crossing by many of the LCD MPs is essentially self seeking and based on political survival calculations, since there was little or no consultation with the electorate. It is in this context that the DC has been coined as ‘a coalition of the wounded’ by observers, since some of the defected MPs have been fingered for losing popularity in their constituencies.

Notwithstanding, opposing MPs who decry the legitimacy of the Mosisili DC government have lodged a case with the High Court to interpret and pass a verdict on both the floor crossing procedure and its legality. Objections primarily include questions on the DC majority in parliament arguing that 45 seats out of 120 does not constitute a majority (assuming that the LCD/NIP alliance is nullified); the declaration itself since the King, and not the Speaker of Parliament has appointing powers and the power to declare a government formed; and the Speaker’s partiality in the process and her complicity in what appears to be a well orchestrated machination by the Mosisili. While the outcome of the court case is pending and may take some time, the election campaigning period is already laden with uncertainty, ranging from LCD claims that they were “unseated by the barrel of the gun” (See Calswell Tladi, “We don’t recognize Mosisili”, Lesotho Times 8 Mar 2012) to political rumours of an imminent DC military supported coup at elections. The latter is attributed to a recent scaling up of military security around the country since Prime Minister Mosisili also serves as the Minister of Defence, and reports that military security has been beefed up at his home. Another factor is the recent shake up in the Lesotho Defence Force with a change of command on the foremost rank of Army Commander. Broadly, the DC is believed to be creating an uneven playing field ahead of the May polls, in light of the fact that the DC as a new structure, is yet to consolidate support in LCD strongholds.

Past elections in Lesotho have been highly competitive mostly characterized by prevailing party and security related disputes. In 2007, they ranged from alleged assassination attempts of several leading figures in government; contested party alliances; logistical and administration shortfalls on the part of the Lesotho Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), and most notably, the allocation of Proportional Representation (PR) seats after the election - an issue that caused confusion with the voters. The latter in fact necessitated the 2007 mediation by the SADC Ministerial Troika of the Organ on Politics Defense and Security Cooperation (OPDSC). Two years later, the seat disputes permeated implying both the limitations of the SADC mediation, and the domestic mechanisms for electoral conflict resolution. This time around, a delegation from the SADC Electoral Advisory Council (SEAC) has already arrived in the country to assess the country’s readiness for elections.

The propensity for election related tensions appears to be embedded in the country’s political culture. Still, whether the May elections will be conflict free will depend on a number of factors, including: DC control of the military and its role in the election period; the role of the High Court in resolving the DC/Mosisili legitimacy conundrum and matters of interpretation and application of law generally; perceptions over IEC credibility and impartiality; the efficacy of structures dealing with election related conflicts like the Election Tribunal created in 2001; as well as probabilities and types of external assistance from SADC.