Lesotho After May 2012 General Elections: Making the coalition work

On Friday 8 June, Thomas Thabane succeeded Pakalitha Mosisili as the Prime Minister of Lesotho, not by winning elections but by building a coalition government with the support of the opposition.

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

On Friday 8 June, Thomas Thabane succeeded Pakalitha Mosisili as the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Lesotho, not by winning elections but by building a coalition government with the support of the opposition. The outcome of Lesotho’s 2012 general elections was historic for three main reasons.

Firstly, the country moved from a single party majority government under the Lesotho Congress Party (LCD), led by former Prime Minister Mosisili since 1997, to a coalition government. Mosisili, who led the newly created LCD splinter party, the Democratic Congress (DC), to a significant win of 48 parliamentary seats (218 366 votes out of a total of 551 726) fell short of winning an outright parliamentary majority, leading to his defeat. This was a direct result of the country’s mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral model, introduced in 2002 to limit post-electoral contestations and make parliament more inclusive. Unlike the country’s previous first-past-the-post model, MMP is premised on proportionality by allocating compensatory seats to weak performers and often to smaller parties. The legal precept of the model is that electoral victory no longer goes to the party with the largest number of votes but to the party that secures more than 50 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly.

The second reason for the significance of these elections is that the coalition, which unseated and relegated the ruling DC to opposition status, was itself produced by opposition parties in the minority. In retrospect, the incumbent DC was not pro-active enough in its efforts to form alliances. On the eve of the announcement of poll results by the Lesotho Independent Electoral Commission on Tuesday 29 May, it was clear that no party had amassed the requisite 61 out of 120 seats in the National Assembly to form a government. The All Basotho Convention (ABC), led by the newly inaugurated Prime Minister Thabane, opened negotiations for the establishment of a coalition on the same day, and by the following day the ABC had sealed a coalition deal with the LCD under Mothejoa Metsing, now serving as deputy Prime Minister, the Basotho National Party (BNP), the Popular Front for Democracy (PFD) and the Marematlou Freedom Party.

The third point to highlight is that the parliamentary opposition numbers are now far more significant than during the previous parliament, which was characterised by a fragmented and weakened opposition.

The first 100 days in office for an administration are crucial for setting the tone for its future policy and leadership orientation. An advantage for the ABC-led coalition is that in addition to commonalities in policy ideology and well-known policies, its partners have extensive parliamentary experience. Thabane, for instance, served as minister under three administrations from 1990 and during the LCD’s tenure under Mosisili, before defecting to the ABC in 2006. It is for this reason that initial public addresses by the PM are anticipated to go beyond rhetoric, be reflective of past and current issues of conflict and consensus within the parliamentary arena, and provide a vision for addressing a widely acknowledged weak parliament.

Research points to three factors that condition voter evaluation of party policy and projected performance. The first is the initial position claimed by the party as reflected in election manifestos, speeches, and its declarations; the second is the party’s past record; and the third, the anticipated future performance. Questions about the longevity of the coalition will remain rooted in this analytical lens, given the country’s history of splinter party formations driven by personality clashes; and the fact that all the parties in the coalition are breakaways. (Marematlou Freedom Party and the LCD are breakaways from the Basotholand Congress Party (BCP), ABC is an LCD breakaway, while the PFD is a breakaway from the Basotho National Party (BNP).)

However, some are convinced of the coalition’s ‘unity of purpose’ mantra, and see it as an important shift from an authoritarian corrupt past to a democratic present. There is also a strong conviction that the majority partners in the coalition (ABC with 30 seats and the LCD with 26) are unlikely to join the DC given the recent acrimonious history with the Mosisili-led party and their own rationalistic calculations in forgoing their ruling status.  

The view from the middle is cautiously optimistic. It appreciates the endemic culture of floor crossing that has historically served as a means to political office while remaining open to a possible shift in party culture and accountability. In reality both office seeking and policy pursuit motivations are likely to be at play in coalition negotiations. But beyond this is what kind of government Lesotho gets and whether the coalition endures - ultimately reflecting genuine power alternation in Lesotho politics as envisaged by its leadership.  

The foregoing has profound implications for the country’s first opposition-led coalition government, especially given that the past parliament was mostly in decline. The imperative to clearly understand and articulate the coalition’s responsibilities in parliament to the electorate, including the requirements for making the legislature work in a way that was not possible before, cannot be overemphasised. Assuming the ABC-led coalition holds its majority, factors determining the coalition’s failure or success in the first 100 days of office can be categorized along three policy phases. In the first phase, which is the transition phase, key factors are how the coalition is led, how it defines its role and function in government, and the details of transitioning from the Mosisili government to the new administration. The most obvious payoffs of office under scrutiny will be cabinet portfolios, (notably the big three - Finance, Foreign Affairs and Trade) and how they are constituted. Equally under scrutiny will be the organisation of the bureaucracy and signs of political interference and partisan appointments of the judiciary and public administrators.

The second phase - mobilization - is about more broadly validating the status and legitimacy of the coalition with the electorate by better defining how it serves the public good. Also requiring elaboration during this phase are programmes promised during the elections by the coalition parties, considering that they vary in emphasis in their party manifestos.

The last phase deals with agenda setting, policy formulation, and programming in the longer term. Here, rhetoric is replaced by a clear demonstration of how policy responsiveness of governing structures is maximised. The hypothesis for now is that the extent of change in the new government in the short to longer term and what realistically can be achieved has a real bearing on public support to the coalition as a whole and individual parties. It also has an impact on the evaluations of the ousted DC opposition party, which still enjoys mass support in Lesotho.  

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