You wouldn’t expect it, but tinkering Lesotho shows all that is good and bad with African rule

The negative headlines have taken away from its experimental approach to democracy, but there is something that works in there.

LESOTHO will have a coalition government following a snap parliamentary election aimed at bringing stability to the tiny southern African kingdom following an alleged coup attempt.

Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s party won the February 28 vote, the electoral commission chairperson Mohapela Lehohla said Tuesday.

Thabane’s All Basotho Convention (ABC) party held 40 seats, followed by its closest rival—the Democratic Congress (DC) of former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili—with 37.

But the DC won the most votes, picking up 218,000 ballots, 3,000 more than the ABC.

The Lesotho Congress for Democracy of Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, whose differences with Thabane fractured the outgoing coalition, had two seats.

Lesotho has a mixed parliamentary system. Eighty lawmakers are voted into power by constituents, while another 40 seats are distributed proportionally after the final tally to ensure all parties are represented.

A party needs 61 of the 120 seats available to rule without being forced into a coalition.

The political situation has been deteriorating since June after the prime minister suspended parliament to avoid a vote of no confidence that would likely have seen him ousted from power.

Fragile coalitions

But fragile coalition governments have been a feature of Lesotho, with mixed outcomes.

The inconclusive nature of the election is a departure from the norm in many African governments, where there has tended to be a clear winner either in the first round if in a first-past-the-post system, or in a majority second-round vote.

But it also recasts a light on the parliamentary system of government, which while being popular with governments in the Commonwealth, continues to have fewer takers in Africa.

Lesotho is one of only five countries on the continent with a purely parliamentary system, where the legislature and the executive are interlinked. 

About 10 other African countries have a semi-parliamentary system, or what is more commonly referred to as the parliamentary republic. In this model the head of government is also the head of state, but is elected, and is answerable to parliament. 

It is a system that has found admirers in countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Algeria and Tunisia. 

But the continent has overwhelmingly gone for the presidential system including all its variants, with over 35 countries plumping for the model. Essentially the president is not responsible to parliament, largely running the show unfettered, from State House.

Debate on the merits

The debate over the merits of both systems in Africa has over the years refused to go away. In the red corner are those who favour the presidential system, seeing it as more stable, better at checks and balances and in ensuring the most popular candidate gets into office. Its detractors see the potential for ‘Big-Man’ like authoritarianism and for costly stalemates with legislatures. 

In the blue corner have been those who think the parliamentary system is speedier in passing law, helps bridge societal divides, encourages less corruption and focuses on party ideals. But those against it find unstable, in addition to propping up popular candidates. 

Lesotho’s coalition fractured when one party—Metsing— withdrew its support. To add to the intrigue, Thabane’s ABC party did not have the majority seats in parliament but linked up with several smaller parties to outflank the winning DC.  

That debate has since evolved into the respective systems’ effects on political parties, with political scientists arguing that presidents often “betray” the parties that take them into power in a presidential structure.

wide-ranging study examining all the prime ministers and presidents in democratic countries between 1945 and 2007 showed that presidents overwhelmingly tend to have weaker ties to their parties than do prime ministers. 

It is a fascinating debate but with few clear winners. Most African countries, for various reasons from the historical to the benefits of patronage, have tended to be rather rigid with their systems. How would it be if they were more “open-minded”?   

An experimental land

With a population of just over two million, nearly 20 political parties run in the country’s last election in 2012. Multi-party politics in Leotho have had a chequered record—almost all elections have involved conflict, and the country has also dabbled with a one-party autocracy and a military regime.

For a country its size Lesotho has tended to be quite experimental with the systems—it has a hybrid, where the party that is first past the post—which is over half of the 120 legislators, gets to rule without a coalition.

It also has proportional representation so that political parties are broadly catered for following reforms, with inter-party relations having improved considerably since their reemergence in 1993. 

It also tried out an executive constitutional monarchy which it didn’t find to be much to its liking. Yet it maintains an upper house of hereditary chiefs, loosely like Britain’s House of Lords.

Lesotho’s coalitions have been a source of much angst—the August 2014 alleged coup bid was alleged to have been fuelled by the opposition, while the military has been a handy political tool in the past.

Political parties also continue to lack policy space, funding, institutions and ideologies. The latter is a concern, as the parliamentary system is supposed to focus politics on party ideals and manifestoes, but there has been little evidence of that in Lesotho, mirroring an African challenge.

But the gains have also been there: Lesotho ranked 10th on the last Ibrahim Index of African Governance. Noticeable, seven of these countries on the list sponsored by Sudanese-British billionaire Mo Ibrahim have a variant of a parliamentary system in place. 

Lesotho also ranks among the top 10 happiest African countries on the World Happiness Report 2013. Clearly, amid all the upheaval, which has been both socio-political and economic given its geographical vulnerability, something is working in the kingdom.

—Additional material from AFP

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