Can Lesotho function without the opposition?

2016-03-08

In Lesotho, the opposition has been boycotting Parliament for the last nine months. Two events that took place last week show the extent to which the impasse has left a dent in the democratic credibility of the country.

On Monday, 1 March, Parliament convened to discuss and pass its national budget. This would be the second consecutive national budget passed without full attendance from the opposition. Meanwhile, the government also held a meeting with the opposition to discuss their grievances along with the parliamentary boycott. The opposition leadership was not in attendance, which raises doubts about whether this and other such meetings would bear fruit.

The eventual outcomes of these developments will be critical to the future stability, governance and democratic credibility of the country. The parliamentary logjam first began at the end of June last year when former prime minister Thomas Thabane – now the official leader of the opposition in Parliament – fled to South Africa. Thabane, along with his counterparts from the Basotho National Party and Reformed Congress of Lesotho, claimed that members of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) were plotting to kill them.

The position of Kamoli, the army general, has become the elephant in the room of Lesotho’s politics

The total number of opposition members of parliament (MPs) is 55, while the governing coalition has 65 seats in Lesotho’s 120-member legislature. Despite an intervention by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the parliamentary opposition leadership is still in exile and their remaining colleagues have boycotted parliamentary sittings. They demand, among other things, the safe return of their leaders and other exiles, and the removal of Lesotho’s army chief, Tlali Kamoli. The government says the opposition’s concerns are ungrounded, but Thabane has insisted that he would only return to Lesotho with protection from SADC.

As a multiparty democracy, the effectiveness of the party system in Lesotho’s Parliament depends on the relationship between the government and the opposition. The continued boycott shows that Basotho politicians are not able or willing to resolve the stalemate, which could affect Lesotho’s standing in the international community.

Donor confidence is waning, which is a major concern for the country’s economy given its dependence on external funding. Last week, the European Union decided not to disburse €26.85 million (approximately R451 million) meant to support Lesotho’s national budget, citing a failure to meet its eligibility conditions. The United States also deferred awarding Lesotho with aid from its Millennium Challenge Cooperation last year, citing security and political unrest. Its eligibility will be reconsidered over the course of the year.

Another reason why the boycott is so significant is the fact that the governing coalition has a relatively slim majority of 54% of seats in the legislature, while the political opposition holds 46%. The strength of the opposition can make it difficult for government to unilaterally institute constitutional reforms, as they would not have the required two-thirds majority.

Donor confidence is waning, which is a major concern for Lesotho’s economy

The boycott has also called attention to the position of its army general, Kamoli: a matter that has become the elephant in the room of Lesotho’s politics. Kamoli was discharged from this position by the previous coalition government in 2014, and Thabane accused him of a coup attempt the same year. He was re-instated in 2015 by Lesotho’s new coalition government under Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili. It was under Kamoli that former LDF commander, Lieutenant-General Mahao was killed by his colleagues who had come to arrest him for an alleged mutiny plot. Some 23 soldiers have subsequently been charged with mutiny and incarcerated.

The court martial case of the 23 soldiers has been postponed until May this year. A SADC Commission of Inquiry into the circumstances of Mahao’s killing as well the political disturbances in the country, recommended that Kamoli be removed from his post. The SADC Commission of Inquiry report also recommended that government ensure the safe return of the exiled opposition leaders and that the mutiny suspects be released.

Donors have described the prevailing situation as a step backward in Lesotho’s democratic development; while SADC threatened it with suspension for failing to abide by its decisions. Yet none of the recommendations have been implemented, and it is business as usual in Maseru.

SADC has reportedly given the government a new deadline of 31 March to prepare a roadmap for implementing its recommendations, and will deploy an oversight committee to monitor progress on the ground. Meanwhile, the opposition maintains that it will not go back to Parliament to give legitimacy to what they perceive to be an unaccountable government.

The parliamentary standoff now also rests on the implementation of the SADC report – which is likely to be a very slow process, if it happens at all. Tsoeu Petlane, Director of the Transformation Resource Centre, a Maseru-based non-governmental organisation, says there is little political will to implement the recommendations of the report. ‘Mosisili did not release the report to the public, but to Parliament instead. This has implications on how it will be processed. One of his most glaring comments was that the [SADC] Commission’s work was reprehensible in many aspects. He also said that the recommendations were not binding, and that some will not see the light of day.’

Without the opposition, Lesotho’s government effectively operates like a one-party regime

With regards to the opposition boycott, Petlane argues that the strategy has outlived its political utility. ‘It is denying them input into debates on crucial national issues, including the interrogation of the SADC Commission report. They also need to be in Parliament to insist on other priorities, including the Human Rights Commission Bill that is currently under discussion. If passed in their absence, we may see Lesotho establish an institution that does not meet international standards. This would be a disservice to Basotho beyond the current term of government and Parliament.’

Boycotts from the opposition can paralyse Parliament and affect government functioning, but in this case, government appears to have a different view. Dr Fako Likoti, the political advisor to Lesotho’s prime minister, argues that Parliament can work effectively without the opposition. ‘There is no reason why the opposition is boycotting Parliament.

‘The exiled opposition is not being honest about their safety; they have been spotted numerous times in Maseru and are simply refusing to go home to gain political mileage. The issue of the opposition in Parliament is not negotiable, especially because the boycott has nothing to do with Parliament. They left Parliament on their own accord. In fact, they are violating Lesotho’s constitution.’

Indeed, according to Section 60 of the Constitution (as amended in 1997), ‘a senator or a member of the national assembly has to vacate his or her seat if absent from one third of the total member of seatings in Parliament, without the written permission of the Speaker of Parliament.’ Certainly, the opposition does not have permission from the speaker to embark on and continue with the boycott. The government has not, however, evoked this provision as yet.

The impasse could also mean that the legislature is deprived of its mandatory quorum of lawmakers to make Parliament function. But, in Lesotho, Parliament can sit even with a minimum of 30 MPs. According to its parliamentary standing orders, the mandatory quorum of Parliament and its committees is 30 MPs, besides the person presiding. This means that Parliament can still sit and conduct its business without the opposition. But clearly, its effectiveness would be undermined by the absence of opposition legislatures, who would sit in different parliamentary committees.

The crux is that without the opposition, Lesotho’s government effectively operates like a one-party regime; an image the state should steer away from. Regardless of the position of government, the current regime needs the opposition back in Parliament to bolster its legitimacy and its commitment to change. It would also ease pressure from donors and from SADC.

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

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