Ma­tur­ing democ­racy or fail­ure of in­sti­tu­tions?

. . . as Le­sotho goes to the polls again

Lesotho Times - - Opinion/News - Aerni-fless­ner is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of African His­tory whose work fo­cuses on 20th cen­tury Le­sotho. This ar­ti­cle was orig­i­nally pub­lished in the Daily Mav­er­ick. John Aerni-fless­ner

WHEN Tom Tha­bane and the All Ba­sotho Con­ven­tion (ABC) took power af­ter the 2012 elec­tions, it marked the first peace­ful trans­fer of power in Le­sotho’s rel­a­tively brief his­tory.

It also marked the coun­try’s first in­stance of coali­tion gov­ern­ment. Many south­ern African po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors, in­clud­ing this au­thor, found rea­son for op­ti­mism in 2012 with the dawn­ing of the coali­tion era in Le­sotho’s pol­i­tics, but was this op­ti­mism mis­placed?

June 3, 2017 will mark the third time in five years that Le­sotho has held a gen­eral elec­tion. The elec­tion comes on the heels of Demo­cratic Congress (DC) leader Prime Min­is­ter Pakalitha Mosisili los­ing a no-con­fi­dence mo­tion in March in Par­lia­ment.

His un­wieldy seven-party coali­tion de­gen­er­ated into in­fight­ing less than two years af­ter tak­ing of­fice. This is the sec­ond coali­tion fail­ure in three years. In 2014, Al­lBa­sotho Con­ven­tion (ABC) leader Dr Tha­bane’s three-party coali­tion crum­bled only two years af­ter tak­ing of­fice.

The rapid dis­in­te­gra­tion of two suc­ces­sive coali­tion gov­ern­ments and con­tin­ued po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence at the high­est lev­els of pol­i­tics and se­cu­rity have tar­nished the hope seen at the time.

With coali­tions seem­ingly un­sta­ble in Le­sotho, is there any hope that the con­tin­u­a­tion of the “coali­tion era” af­ter the 2017 elec­tions will lead to good gov­er­nance for or­di­nary Ba­sotho?

Or do we have to rea­son­ably con­clude that coali­tions are an­other failed ex­per­i­ment in the 50-year search for sta­ble, rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment in Le­sotho?

His­tory sug­gests that any new coali­tion will be in­her­ently un­sta­ble, but that as of yet, all hope is not lost for gov­ern­men­tal sta­bil­ity in Le­sotho.

Time is surely tick­ing, how­ever, on how long the cur­rent sys­tem can sur­vive if a third con­sec­u­tive coali­tion fails to fin­ish a five-year term.

The na­ture of the elec­toral sys­tem en­sures that an­other coali­tion will come to power in June, but the num­ber of par­ties and the am­bi­tions of the top lead­ers will, as al­ways, de­ter­mine the shape the new gov­ern­ment takes. PM Mosisili’s gov­ern­ment fell af­ter one of his top deputies — Monyane Moleleki — split from the rul­ing DC, formed a new party, the Al­liance of Democrats (AD), and al­lied with Dr Tha­bane’s op­po­si­tion ABC.

The prime min­is­ter is not go­ing away with­out a fight, how­ever. Dr Mosisili’s DC re­cently an­nounced a “vote shar­ing” deal with his pri­mary coali­tion part­ner Mo­thetjoa Mets­ing and the Le­sotho Congress for Democ­racy (LCD).

They will com­bine forces in the hope of gain­ing both more wins in first-past-the-post con­stituen­cies, as well as con­cen­trat­ing votes to gar­ner pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion mem­bers. This strat­egy is also be­ing em­ployed by the op­po­si­tion al­liance.

All of these pre-elec­tion machi­na­tions raise the ques­tion of what it means to have sep­a­rate par­ties if the level of co-or­di­na­tion and co­op­er­a­tion is this close.

Sim­i­larly, and more im­por­tant, what ben­e­fit will or­di­nary Ba­sotho see from all this po­lit­i­cal ma­noeu­vring? The re­cent ex­pe­ri­ences of coali­tion gov­ern­ments sug­gest these are sim­ply strate­gies for gain­ing and main­tain­ing power, rather than tac­tics that will lead to bet­ter gov­er­nance from a fu­ture gov­ern­ment.

All par­ties are ac­cru­ing po­lit­i­cal debts to smaller part­ners that will prob­a­bly need to be re­paid with min­is­te­rial po­si­tions and other ex­pan­sions of top gov­ern­men­tal posts.

The less cyn­i­cal read of pre-elec- tion ma­noeu­vring is that at least these po­lit­i­cal in­no­va­tions are com­ing from Ba­sotho.

There has been deep dis­trust from all sides of out­side com­mis­sions and South African/sadc me­di­a­tion over the years.

The cur­rent op­po­si­tion is op­posed to the me­di­a­tion of South African Deputy Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa be­cause they see him as be­ing too close to for­mer Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Mets­ing to act as a neu­tral bro­ker.

Sim­i­larly, the gov­ern­ment al­liance saw the Sadc-spon­sored Phumaphi Com­mis­sion as be­ing bi­ased against them. The com­mis­sion in­ves­ti­gated the 2015 as­sas­si­na­tion of for­mer LDF head Maa­parankoe Ma­hao, and other as­sorted po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence that oc­curred in the wake of the Au­gust 2014 coup/not-a-coup in Maseru.

Re­sis­tance to these ef­forts has seem­ingly poi­soned the chance for out­siders to bro­ker po­lit­i­cal deals lead­ing to sys­temic change. Ba­sotho-led ini­tia­tives prob­a­bly have the best chance to suc­ceed.

The more cyn­i­cal read is that the long his­tory of po­lit­i­cal con­tes­ta­tion af­ter elec­tions, squab­bling over po- sitions within gov­ern­ment, and lack of gov­ern­ment sta­bil­ity are fea­tures of the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that will not change with such pa­per-thin “re­forms.”

Un­der this sce­nario, the 2017 elec­tions might just mark the last gasp of the Mixed-mem­ber Pro­por­tional (MMP) sys­tem in Le­sotho.

From the per­spec­tive of the Ba­sotho pub­lic, na­tional leg­is­la­tors are highly un­pop­u­lar. While party ral­lies still at­tract large crowds at week­ends ahead of the vote, most Ba­sotho vot­ers do not be­lieve that pol­i­tics at the na­tional level will solve their ev­ery­day prob­lems.

So where does Le­sotho go from here? What can Ba­sotho do?

First: Ba­sotho can vote. Turnout for the 2015 elec­tions slid be­low 50 per­cent, which gives Ba­sotho politi­cians lit­tle in­cen­tive to broaden their ap­peal. Only the most par­ti­san vot­ers are com­ing out to the polls.

Sec­ond: Ba­sotho in­volved in par­ties can in­sist that their lead­ers pre­pare for suc­ces­sion. None of the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties in Le­sotho have ever vol­un­tar­ily turned over lead­er­ship.

Only ill­ness/death and in­tra-party coups have man­aged to un­seat party lead­er­ship in the in­de­pen­dence era. Hav­ing no suc­ces­sion plan means that younger, am­bi­tious lead­ers have more in­cen­tive to split and form their own party in the hope of gain­ing per­sonal power. Am­bi­tion can­not wait in a sys­tem that re­wards schism.

Third: Re­form the MMP sys­tem so that par­ties have to gain a size­able na­tional stand­ing in or­der to gain par­lia­men­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

With the small­est party in the 2015-17 Par­lia­ment gar­ner­ing fewer than 2,000 votes na­tion­wide, there is lit­tle rea­son for a politi­cian with any base of sup­port not to form a new party.

With the bar to get into Par­lia­ment so low, and given the stark po­lit­i­cal di­vides that mean even a few in­de­pen­dent seats can make or break a coali­tion, the chance of end­ing up in a min­is­te­rial po­si­tion is rel­a­tively high. Thus, a canny politi­cian can turn a few thou­sand votes into a pow­er­ful po­si­tion.

Fourth: Ba­sotho need to con­tinue de­mand­ing a re­vamp­ing of the role the se­cu­rity forces play in pub­lic life, an is­sue that has long be­dev­iled the po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity of the Moun­tain King­dom.

With the ex­cep­tion of the se­cu­rity re­forms, a seem­ingly in­tractable prob­lem at the mo­ment, these are all steps that Ba­sotho who are not par­lia­men­tar­i­ans can take.

There are or­gan­i­sa­tions within Le­sotho, like the Trans­for­ma­tion Re­source Cen­tre, the Le­sotho Coun­cil of NGOS, and De­vel­op­ment for Peace Ed­u­ca­tion push­ing for these goals.

They need, how­ever, a broad­based coali­tion of sup­port, in par­tic­u­lar from ru­ral Ba­sotho, to fur­ther an agenda of in­creased po­lit­i­cal trans­parency.

With pub­lic pride for Le­sotho run­ning deep, so­lu­tions to these prob­lems will prob­a­bly have to come from within.

The 2017 elec­tions can be a venue for Ba­sotho weary of short­sighted po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship to take the lead in de­mand­ing po­lit­i­cal re­form.

The al­ter­na­tive will prob­a­bly be more of the same that they saw in the 2012-2017 pe­riod: short-term coali­tion gov­ern­ments wor­ried more about in­ter­nal po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions than gov­er­nance, and a con­stant sup­ply of new po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

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