Lesotho reforms hang in the balance ahead of elections

Reforms should have preceded voting; their passage now depends on the promises of parties running for power.

Lesotho citizens are going to the polls on 7 October amid uncertainty over the future of much-needed reforms that were declared null and void at the eleventh hour. Violence and brutality by security forces also threaten the elections, which over 50 political parties are contesting.

Numerous observer groups are in the country, including the first-ever major European Union (EU) mission. The EU has supported the reform process, which was expected to change the electoral laws before the elections.

The reforms – meant to usher in a new era of stability in Lesotho – are the result of years of discussions among political parties, civil society and other role players, mediated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

All the major parties in Parliament signed a pledge in May to pass the so-called Omnibus Constitutional Bill by the end of June. It amends key provisions regarding political parties, floor-crossing in Parliament, the appointment of senior officials and the role of the prime minister. This was to ensure the new legislation could go through before Parliament was dissolved 90 days before the elections.

However the 11th Amendment to the Constitution Bill 2022 and the National Assembly Electoral Bill weren’t passed in time. Disagreements over aspects of the bill, notably between the Senate and Parliament, held up progress.

Will citizens have enough faith in the political system to come out and vote on 7 October?

Following pressure from several quarters, including SADC and South Africa, Lesotho’s Council of State recommended that Parliament be reconvened for an urgent session to pass the bill before the elections. It advised that King Letsie III declare a state of emergency – the only legal way to recall Parliament – to prepare for elections.

The king, who has no executive powers, followed the recommendation of the Council and Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro, who said that failure to pass the bills threatened Lesotho’s stability. The country’s relationship with key partners and SADC were also at stake, he said. The state of emergency, on 16 August, came conveniently just as SADC was meeting for its annual summit in Kinshasa.

SADC sees the Lesotho reforms as a significant achievement and an example of how it can intervene to help countries stabilise their politics for the good of citizens. SADC’s current involvement dates back to 2014, when it stepped in to quell dissent and violence following the ousting of the previous prime minister. It also sent a small military intervention force in 2017 to ensure stability.

However the Constitutional Court declared the reform bills unlawful following a successful challenge brought by a former journalist and the Law Society of Lesotho on 12 September. Legal experts largely agree with the court’s argument that the state of emergency wasn’t justified.

So the reconvening of Parliament and the passing of the Omnibus bill were null and void. This is a blow to those who worked hard to see them passed, including the EU and the United Nations Development Programme, which financed much of the National Reforms Authority’s work since its establishment in 2019.

The new bill could limit the use of politics for individual gain and root out nepotism

Political parties contesting the October elections have vowed to ensure the reform process goes ahead if they come to power. But not all of them are equally committed to quick timelines, and some reforms would need a referendum before they can be adopted.

Over 50 parties are contesting the polls in a country of fewer than three million people. Established parties such as the All Basotho Convention and the Democratic Congress – part of the ruling coalition – and the opposition Lesotho Congress for Democracy and the Democratic Congress face stiff opposition from Sam Matekane’s Revolution for Prosperity party.

One of the major issues has been the mixed proportional electoral system that’s led to unstable coalitions and acrimony within political parties. The arrangement has resulted in infighting and floor-crossing rather than a representation of voters.

In addition to limiting floor-crossing, the reforms would mean that a prime minister can only be removed by a two-thirds majority. This would reduce the potential for instability – as happened earlier this year – when the prime minister lost control of his party and faced repeated calls for removal from within his own ranks.

Now that reforms have stalled, what role can SADC and the international community play?

The new bill could also limit the use of politics for individual gain and root out nepotism, as appointments of ambassadors and parastatal heads, for example, would be by independent commissions rather than Parliament. A proposal is also on the table to make the king the commander of the armed forces. The king rather than Parliament, would make key appointments in the army and police, reducing the politicisation of the security forces.

Now that reform has stalled, questions are being asked about the future role of SADC and the international community. At its Kinshasa summit, SADC seemed to commit to appointing an oversight committee to ensure the reforms are carried out. How robust its intervention will be, given frustrations with the process, is however unclear.

The more important question is whether citizens – who have primarily supported the reform process – have enough faith in the political system to come out and vote on 7 October. At the last elections in 2017, only 46% of registered voters turned up.

Apart from the EU and the Commonwealth observer teams, SADC and the African Union observer teams are set to arrive this week. The polls need to proceed smoothly and without violence leading up to and on election day. They must also be seen as free and fair to get the buy-in of political actors and the international community.

Pursuing reforms in Lesotho again will need commitment and political will from everyone involved to finally put the country on a path of lasting stability.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Senior Researcher, ISS Pretoria

Image: © Gianluigi Guercia/AFP

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