Democracy 101: Tiny Lesotho Holds Peaceful Election

Article excerpt

After a number of setbacks, with disputed elections leading to civil war, the African kingdom of Lesotho holds an election that boots the incumbent. A coalition government is in the works.

Lesotho - the tiny mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa, with the best (ok, only) skiing in Africa, and one of the world's highest HIV infection rates - is getting recognition for something else: carrying out a peaceful election with a likely transfer of power.

After elections held this week, a majority of Basotho voters turned against the 14-year rule of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, expressing frustration with empty promises. With no party enjoying a convincing majority, five opposition parties this week cobbled together Lesotho's first-ever coalition government and claim at least 61 seats of the 120-member parliament - with an ex-foreign minister, Tom Thabane, tabbed as the new premier.

With its straightforward process and absence of violence thus far, Lesotho gives a lesson in democracy that many other African countries -- such as Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Cote D'Ivoire, Kenya, and even nearby Madagascar, Zimbabwe, and South Africa could learn to emulate, political observers say.

"If a sitting government actually leaves office gracefully, this will be a first for southern Africa," says Nqosa Mahau, a coalition- government expert at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand, who advised the major parties here prior to the May 26 elections. "It will put Lesotho on the map for its democratic credentials - and set a tone for the rest of the region."

Setbacks in African elections -- notably the four-month civil war in Cote D'Ivoire in 2010, after the losing President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down -- have recently raised questions about whether democratic culture is actually taking root on the continent. Far too many elections feature heavy vote-rigging, intimidation, and sporadic bouts of violence, rendering the final vote count questionable in the eyes of election observers. Yet the election results in Lesotho shows that some African countries can hold world- class elections, even in a country with plenty of excuses for failure, including poverty, rugged terrain, and illiteracy.

Even seasoned Western observers found much to praise.

"After a number of African elections that haven't gone so well, this is more good news that free and fair elections can be done in Africa, too," says Hans Duynhouwer, the European Union's ambassador to Lesotho. "A coalition will be a novelty for Lesotho, as well: it will mean a change in the political culture, where they'll have to develop a consensual approach across party divides."

The question now is whether Mosisili, who holds sway over the army and police, steps down peacefully or stubbornly clings to power - as so many African leaders before him. In 1998, post-election violence in Lesotho spawned widespread arson in Maseru, triggering a minor invasion by neighboring South Africa, which then saw the deaths of at least 58 Basotho and eight South African troops.

As of Thursday, it was reported that Mosisili had submitted his resignation, but that the constitution required his caretaker leadership until a new Parliament could be seated within 14 days of the election. That was followed by rumors swirling of Mosisili's minions feverishly horse-trading to buy votes of individual MPs, hoping to lure enough across the aisle to form a majority of their own - an unsettling scenario for hundreds of international observers in the capital, many of them fellow Africans.

Mosisili "assured me he would be the first to congratulate the winner - and we pray that will be the case," says Bakili Muluzi, lead observer from the Commonwealth, a union of 54 pro-democracy countries. …