Citizens and opposition parties organize for a fair election process in Lesotho, 1997 – 2002

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Timing
Time Period:  
June
1997
to
May
2002
Location and Goals
Country: 
Lesotho
Goals: 
Fair Elections
 

The Basotho Congress Party came into power in the democratic elections of 1993. Lesotho, a kingdom, possessed a system of government that was characterized by the presence of both a monarch and elected officials. The monarch at the time of the elections, King Letsie III, made an attempt to persuade the newly elected BCP government to reinstate his father, King Moshoeshoe II, as king. King Moshoeshoe had previously been exiled for trying to amend the constitution to allocate more power to the throne. When his attempt to amend the constitution failed, King Letsie III orchestrated a military coup of the BCP government. After negotiations, however, the BCP government was reinstated and King Moshoeshoe II assumed the throne once more. Two years after, King Moshoeshoe died and King Letsie III returned to the throne. The political climate would continue to worsen in the years to come.

Ntsu Mokhehle, Lesotho’s Prime Minister and the leader of the BCP, announced on June 7, 1997 that he would be leaving the BCP to start a new political party. Internal tension within the BCP contributed to the move and Mokhehle took the opportunity to found the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD). Several opposition parties issued a joint statement calling the Prime Minister’s actions “an illegal usurpation of democracy.” Nine days later, a coalition of the opposition groups organized a protest march to the Royal Palace in Maseru, Lesotho. 10,000 people participated in the protest that called for the Prime Minister’s resignation. A similar march followed the week after that. The government responded with a ban on marches to the Royal Palace, but the ban only prompted more marches of over 100 people to the Royal Palace in July.

In addition to the ongoing marches, the opposition parties also circulated a petition, which stated that the Prime Minister’s actions had been unconstitutional. The petition asked the King to “prepare for just elections as soon as possible.” The petition was presented to the King’s private secretary who assured the protesters that it would be given to the King.

Meanwhile, demonstrations continued to escalate.

On July 2, the opposition alliance organized a demonstration that featured 12,000 participants. Following the mass demonstration, the chairman of the opposition alliance, Moketse Malebo, told the local media to expect “an escalation of civil disobedience.” 1998, an election year, would see the escalation that Malebo mentioned.

The elections of 1998 were held on May 23 and the LCD won 79 of a possible 80 parliamentary seats. One opposition party, the Basotho National Party (BNP), claimed one seat. In response to the election results, thousands of opposition supporters marched to the Royal Palace in Maseru, Lesotho. The sentiments of the opposition supporters were amplified when a statistical analysis of the elections results showed that eight times more voters were born on January 1 than any other day. This led many campaigners to believe that the LCD had manipulated the results of the election.

The BCP, BNP, and the Marematlou Freedom Party (MFP) organized a vigil at the gates of the Royal Palace on August 4. Eight days into the vigil, soldiers fired tear gas canisters into the crowd to scare them off, but the crowd of several hundred remained and continued singing. The vigil eventually came to an end two days later when a shootout broke out and nine people were injured. Allegedly, 200 LCD supporters marched into the crowd of opposition supporters and each group attacked the other. That same week, two people died in a scuffle between opposition supporters and LCD supporters.

The campaigners learned of a small victory when, in late August, an interim report suggested that the Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission had mishandled the election. Opposition sources later argued that up to 98% of the electoral results had been mishandled. Following the oppositions’ accusations, the LCD government released a statement saying that a mishandling of the election did mean that election fraud had occurred. The 98% figure was also highly contested by the LCD.

After the initial controversy regarding the election results, the commission that filed the report announced on September 14 that it planned to postpone releasing the report in its entirety. In response, protesters marched from the Royal Palace in Maseru to the government complex where South African and Lesotho public officials were meeting. Two days later, protesters began seizing official government vehicles as the officials were driving to work. The protesters then drove the vehicles to the Royal Palace in Maseru.

Just when anarchy appeared to be in the near future, the LCD government and the opposition parties sat down for negotiations in October of 1998. The two sides agreed that Lesotho should have another election 18 months from October, but the two sides also differed on what should happen leading up to the new elections. The LCD wished to remain in power until then, while the opposition alliance wished to have a transitional government be put in place until the next election. After a day-long meeting, the two sides agreed to let the LCD government remain in control until the new elections.

17 months later, in May of 2000, the opposition alliance began pressing for the new election to take place. On May 3, an anonymous opposing force called for a general strike to happen on May 10, but no one participated in the strike. Another general strike was called for by the BNP on August 7. Like the previous attempt at a general strike, this one also failed to attract any participants.

No elections were held in 2000. The campaign did, however, experience some success in 2001. On March 1, the Senate of Lesotho passed legislation to reform the electoral process with the intention of making the electoral process more fair and just. In addition to the 80 parliamentary seats, there would now be an additional 40 proportional representative seats. These seats would be compensatory seats and would depend largely on the local election results.

The new system of elections, known as mixed member representation, remained unused in 2001. Finally, on February 26, 2002, King Letsie III announced that elections would be held in May of 2002. Thus, the entire hope of the campaign now rested with the upcoming elections. Voter registration campaigns ensued and soon it was the day of the election. On May 25, the LCD won 77 of the 120 seats. All of the LCD’s were normal parliamentary seats. The opposition parties did benefit greatly from the mixed member representation system because they won all 40 of the compensatory seats. In the end, the opposition parties made a lot of progress, but the LCD did win handily.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Agence France-Presse. “Mediator takes ‘optimistic’ view of Lesotho prospects – rival political parties meet after neighbor states push” Washington Times 1 October 1998

Beresford, David. “Lesotho ballot hit by fraud claims” The Guardian 29 May 1998

Business Day. ‘Lesotho opposition questions Mufamadi’s impartiality at talks” Business Day 2 October 1998

Chick, Dustin and Candi Ratabane Raminoane. “Lesotho GOVT and opposition strike deal” Business Day 15 October 1998

Daley, Suzanne. “After mutiny and invasion, Lesotho plans a new vote” New York Times 3 October 1998

Greensboro News & Record. “Lesotho residents upset over parliamentary election” Greensboro News & Record 25 May 1998

Keeton, Claire. “Lesotho’s ruling party wins three seats in election” Business Day 27 May 2002

Laurence, Patrick. “Mbeki embarrassment continues after Lesotho misinformation” Irish Times 5 October 1998

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Opposition wins first-ever seat in Leostho” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 26 May 1998

Raminoane, Candi Ratabane. “Lesotho opposition to step up mass action” Business Day (South Africa) 4 July 1997

----. “Lesotho faces pressure to hold general elections” Business Day (South Africa) 3 May 2000

Reuters. “Lesotho protesters demand report on vote” New York Times 16 September 1998

SAPA News Agency. “Lesotho: opposition parties protest new government outside royal palace” SAPA News Agency (South Africa) 5 August 1998

----. “Lesotho: opposition defy government ban on marches to royal palace” SAPA News Agency (South Africa) 2 July 1997

----. “Lesotho: government says ‘no constitutional basis’ for king to ask PM to resign” SAPA News Agency (South Africa) 17 June 1997

----. “Lesotho: SADC observers say election ‘free and fair,’ reject statement by others” SAPA News Agency (South Africa) 24 May 1998

----. “Lesotho: tear gas fails to disperse protesters outside royal palace” SAPA News Agency South Africa” 12 August 1998

----. “Lesotho: interim report says election mishandled” SAPA News Agency (South Africa) 26 August 1998

----. “Lesotho opposition protests against delay in publishing report on election” SAPA News Agency (South Africa) 14 September 1998

----. “Lesotho: King appeals to opposition supporters to leave palace grounds” SAPA News Agency (South Africa) 11 October 1998

----. “Lesotho opposition supporters reportedly to leave palace” SAPA News Agency (South Africa) 11 October 1998

----. “Lesotho: national stayaway called by opposition party not heeded” SAPA News Agency (South Africa) 7 August 2000

----. “Lesotho political authority blames South Africa for delay in elections” SAPA News Agency (South Africa) 6 February 2001

---. ‘Lesotho: Upper house passes legislation to introduce new electoral system” SAPA News Agency (South Africa) 1 March 2001

----. “Lesotho: King proclaims 25 May as date for general election” SAPA News Agency (South Africa) 26 February 2002

Sharp, Gene. Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential. Boston: Porter Argent Publishers, Inc, 2005.

Smith, Alex Duval. “Lesotho tense amid protest at ‘rigged’ polls” The Guardian 15 August 1998

Additional Notes: 
Edited by Max Rennebohm (14/07/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Julio Alicea, 02/02/2011