The people of Lesotho will hit the polls Saturday morning to elect a prime minister, nearly two years earlier than originally planned. The emergency election comes six months after an alleged coup attempt ousted Prime Minister Thomas Thabane from his seat, and forced him to flee across the border to South Africa.
While proponents of this early ballot welcome the opportunity for Lesotho’s citizens to reestablish stability, not everyone is enthusiastic. Some observers think the early polls will emphasize the futility of the electoral process, and usher in more instability than people are currently living with. As political analyst Gary Staden told Reuters, “The idea of these elections is to try to solve a crisis, but I think they might perpetuate one…my concern is that any mess-up – like a failure to deliver ballot papers – is going to be interpreted as someone trying to rig the election and that could set off unrest.”
After all, Lesotho’s precarious position may well be the result of political maneuvering. Many saw the coup as a result of political infighting, and have trouble identifying substantive differences between the candidates. Saturday’s election is also expected to be incredibly close: Thabane from the All Basotho Convention Party will square off against Mothetjoa Metsing of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy, with no clear winner being called. Thabane publicly accused Metsing of engineering the coup in August. International observers will be at polling places Saturday, assuaging some fears of unrest.
The elections are of especial interest to South Africa, whose affairs are inextricably bound to Lesotho’s. Lesotho’s boundaries lie entirely within South Africa’s borders, so the latter has a direct interest in quelling any potential spillover violence sparked by political unrest. For this reason, South Africa regularly intervenes in Lesotho’s affairs. South Africa dispatched troops to the so-called Mountain Kingdom after a coup in 1998, and more recently worked alongside the Lesotho parliament to negotiate the deal that decreed tomorrow’s early elections. South Africa also depends on Lesotho for vital resources — including nearly all of its water — which it pumps over the border.
A peaceful, decisive and democratic election will be a good sign for Lesotho’s future stability, yet many observers remain fearful. Lesotho is ranked near the bottom of any list of development indicators. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, has one of the shortest life expectancies, and some of the highest HIV rates. The country’s infrastructure is woefully underdeveloped, with many towns in the mountains accessible only by foot. Politicians who have promised to alleviate poverty in the past have never followed through, causing some to worry that Lesotho’s democracy may never truly thrive.
And yet, alongside Lesotho’s bleakest indicators are a few hopeful ones. The country has achieved an unusually high rate of gender equality, and has one of Africa’s highest literacy rates. Furthermore, Thabane’s initial election in 2012 was seen by many as a promising sign that the country is more than capable of handling a peaceful transition of power. With any luck, that won’t just be a one-time thing.