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ISS Seminar Report: The Significance of Lesotho's 2012 Political Transition and the Outlook for the New Administration
Date: 22 June 2012

Generally, Lesotho’s postcolonial history has revolved around the contestation for power during and after elections. In the postcolonial period, the military was used as a politicised and partisan tool, which even seized power and governed for some years. The country’s initial wave of democratisation began in 1965 with the first parliamentary elections that ushered in a democratically elected government under the Basotho National Party (BNP) and the country’s independence from British rule in 1966. However, the post-1966 political climate witnessed a reversal in the democratic gains of the country when the ruling BNP refused to transfer power to the Basutoland Congress Party (BCP), which had won the 1970 parliamentary elections. The subsequent period, 1970–1986, witnessed a protracted and stubborn authoritarian regime under the BNP. The BNP was only to be unseated by a military junta in 1986, which then ruled the country until 1993. The 7-year rule by the military junta was ended by the re-introduced multi-party democracy via the 1993 elections won by the BCP, which then governed until 1998. Like its former nemesis, the BCP lost the 1998 elections and refused to accept the sweeping election victory of the LCD, leading to widespread violence, clashes with the armed opposition and weeks of political instability. Law and order was only restored in 1998 through the military intervention of South Africa and Botswana under the banner of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Therefore, the threat of political instability in Lesotho following the outcome of elections is characteristic of its political landscape primarily because of the foregoing history of fractious politics. This trend, however, was broken in the aftermath of its May 2012 general elections. The political transition that followed the 2012 polls ushered in a new government led by an opposition coalition, ending the erstwhile ruling party’s more than a decade of dominance. The transition itself marks a historic moment in the country’s politics, while its peaceful management represents relative maturation in the country’s political institutions. The abovementioned developments have necessitated an examination of this particular electoral process in the broader context of Lesotho’s political development. The seminar therefore aimed to explore the country’s political dynamics in 2012 with the opposition now in power. Critical themes including the nature of the existing civil-military relations and the significance of the new coalition government in altering the content and substance of governance for the country were given primacy.  


  • Dr Motlamelle Anthony Kapa, Lecturer and Head: Department of Political and Administrative Studies, National University of Lesotho

  • Dimpho Motsamai, Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis (CPRA), Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria

  • Brig. Gen. Maaparankoe Mahao, Chief of Staff SADC Standby Force Planning Element, SADC Secretariat, Botswana


  • Dr David Zounmenou, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis, ISS, Pretoria


The Chair, Dr David Zounmenou, welcomed participants to the seminar, noting that the meeting would, among others, unpack past and current disputes over elections and political configuration in Lesotho, and the degree to which the political atmosphere changed in the aftermath of the 2012 polls. Accordingly, civil military relations and the extent to which the new coalition-led dispensation foretold changes to the country’s external relations were to be illuminated. Seminar presenters were introduced.

First Presentation

Lesotho’s mixed member proportional system and the 2012 parliamentary elections: a

new dawn for democratic consolidation – Dr Kapa

According to Kapa, the change to Lesotho’s electoral system has altered the nature of its democracy to such an extent that the 26 May 2012 parliamentary elections were historic, marking a new dawn for democratic consolidation in Lesotho. For Kapa, Lesotho’s current electoral model – the mixed member proportional (MMP) system introduced in the 2002 elections – offers useful lessons for other countries in Africa, especially those using the first past the post (FPTP) model, which has potential for post-electoral violence owing to problems of exclusivity. Kapa provided contextual background to the development of the MMP, noting Lesotho’s notoriety for election-related conflict since independence, the worst manifesting itself in the aftermath of the 1998 elections. He stated that the main cause of post-election conflict in Lesotho had been the exclusionary nature of the FPTP electoral system bequeathed at independence by Britain, which had a tendency of excluding other political parties from parliament despite some degree of popular support. Kapa highlighted that the 2002 MMP system contributed immensely to Lesotho’s post-electoral stability because 10 parties got representation in the National Assembly in the aftermath of the 2002 polls, putting an end to the one-party parliament that followed the 1993 election; the model for seat allocation resulted in almost all major political parties being represented in parliament after the 2002 elections; and there was no violent conflict until the Prime Minister called a snap election scheduled for 17 February 2007 to prevent a collapse of his government. Kapa explained that the snap election had to do with the diminished Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) majority in parliament following the creation of a breakaway party from the ruling LCD, the All Basotho Convention (ABC), in 2006.

Nine of the 19 political parties were listed as having formed pre-election coalitions to maximise votes and win more, or at least retain seats in parliament. However, Kapa cautioned that the pacts put under assault the MMP system, effectively turning the MMP into a parallel system and undermining the very principle of inclusivity. For instance, the LCD pact with the National Independent Party (NIP) was driven by political survival; and at the polls, parties would contest and members were urged to vote on both the PR and constituency ballots. An elaboration of the utility of pacts was further given, in particular that they bound parties to an implicit cooperation in parliament. Despite its utility, Kapa noted that the MMP produced a new form of election-related dispute; one on the allocation of the PR seats. According to Kapa, because the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) treated alliances as separate entities, they enjoyed undue advantage over other smaller parties and seat allocation became a contentious issue before the High Court. On the High Court ruling, Kapa stated its significance as parliament agreed on a new National Assembly Electoral Act, 2011 that was implemented in the 2012 elections. The act itself, as Kapa observed, was a landmark piece of legislation because it introduced a single-ballot two-votes system that prevented pre-election pacts and led to an electoral outcome that has taken Lesotho out of a dominant party system and to the formation of a coalition government.

Kapa concluded that the MMP model was useful for promoting political stability through the inclusivity of parliament, political participation and democratic alternation of power despite attempts to undermine it. Lesotho’s first democratic coalition government, the general acceptance of electoral results by all election stakeholders and the peaceful handing over of power by the Prime Minister to the ABC majority were highlighted as further practices worthy of emulation. The new challenge, as he observed, lied in making the coalition government work for Basotho and protecting democratic gains made thus far.

Second Presentation

The role of the Lesotho Defence Force in the 2012 transition – Brig. Gen. Mahao

Mahao’s presentation focused on recent patterns of civil-military relations in Lesotho, specifically the degree of militarisation in Lesotho politics and the encroachment of elements of militarism in the 2012 election period. Divided into four parts, the presentation elaborated on the legal and regulatory framework for the institution of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) and civil military relations; the internal security situation; command and deployment imperatives; and LDF operations. As a point of departure, Mahao underscored the centrality of section 146 of the Constitution of Lesotho, which reads ‘There shall be a Defence Force for the maintenance of internal security and defence of Lesotho’, as legitimising the existence of the LDF and its mandate. He further highlighted the administrative and operational responsibilities of the LDF as stipulated in the LDF Act No.4 of 1996, which underlines its mandate as embracing the defence of Lesotho as a sovereign entity; the prevention or suppression of terrorism and internal disorder; the maintenance of essential services including the maintenance of law and order; and the prevention of crime and any other duties that it may be assigned.

Mahao subsequently focused on the security situation preceding the 2012 May polls, providing a chronology of recent security events. He highlighted the 2006 shooting of Bereng Sekhonyana, who represented the Basotho National Party on the 1998 Interim Political Authority (IPA) steered by SADC to promote conducive conditions for the 2002 polls; assassination attempts on ABC chairman Molobeli Soulo in February 2012; and the March 2012 shooting of former labour minister and ABC MP Sello Clement Machakela, alleged to have had plans to defect to Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s Democratic Congress. Allegations of security apparatus complicity in the foregoing cases dented the impartiality of the national security service as a whole and resulted in low morale in the security cluster, particularly the police service, which is expected to provide law enforcement and speedy apprehension of culprits. Mahao further noted the recent heckling of Mosisili and DC supporters at a DC campaign rally, ostensibly by opposition parties, where soldiers and riot police were summoned to restore order; and the LDF April statement that it will ‘hit very hard’ people who instigate violence during the election campaign period. The foregoing not only implied a volatile election environment but also raised questions on whether the army was encroaching on territory that was supposed to be under civilian authority.

The residual effect of unresolved cases, according to Mahao, has raised concerns over the role of the security apparatus in Lesotho and perceived lack of clarity over the mandates of institutions responsible for safety and security. The April statement was also interpreted as a general criticism by the army on the preparedness of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service in fulfilling its mandate. Mahao further highlighted the recent shakeup within the LDF, including the retirement of Major General Phatoli Lekanyane, who was replaced as commander by Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli. He observed that the country’s security cluster had suffered from extensive political interference, especially in the appointment of commanders of the police force and the army. He thus noted the imperative for reform and transformation of the LDF, focussing more on its internal cohesion, and that professionalisation be continued under Kamoli’s command. Accordingly these reform activities must take place in tandem with efforts to reassure the opposition and general public of the LDF’s impartiality and its own internal cohesion.  

Besides the traditional operations of the military, Mahao highlighted the LDF role in maintaining law and order in support of the police and as directed by the government. The mandate according to Mahao was considered to buttress police capacity and can be employed in cases of civic disturbances, rioting and looting. Mahao concluded that the Constitution of Lesotho carved out a significant role for LDF in the maintenance of internal stability and security, including law and order. But while this was so, the history of post-election instability caused apprehension during the 2012 election period. According to Mahao, the military was generally professional, and enabled a free and fair election and stability in the electoral aftermath. But attention to depoliticising the military and the country’s politics must be maintained under the new leadership of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane.

Third presentation

Lesotho’s new coalition government and relations with South Africa: a new dawn? – Ms Motsamai

This presentation focused on Lesotho’s relations with its geostrategic neighbour, South Africa, both in the historic context and in the post-Mosisili period. Recent declarations by the new Prime Minister, Thomas Thabane, on the urgent need to revive bilateral relations with South Africa (implying some dormancy); prevailing perceptions that relations deteriorated when Pretoria tightened its immigration policy in 2010; as well as wide scepticism in Lesotho on the utility of relations with Pretoria on its own for socio-economic progress, provided the backdrop to the discussion. Motsamai intimated that there was much to suggest public support in Lesotho for major innovation in the overall relationship, in addition to political will from the ABC and LCD alliance partners since bilateral relations featured strongly in their party manifestos and election campaigns. The interplay of domestic factors seems to necessitate a restoration of diplomatic relations and cooperation with South Africa.

The presentation was structured in five sections. The first section highlighted Lesotho’s domestic context in relation to South Africa, including historical and cultural ties, the peculiarity of its geographical location, and the consequences of its external environment. Motsamai stated that the dependent character of Lesotho’s economy – surviving on migrant remittances from South Africa, dividends from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) and foreign aid – made bilateral relations with South Africa of higher premium than multilateral relations. The South Africa-Lesotho Joint Bilateral Commission of Cooperation (JBCC) was established with the latter in mind, and also to help Lesotho graduate from Least Developed Country (LDC) status. The second section discussed the evolution of the JBCC from its inception in 2001 to date, noting achievements and challenges on both sides. Motsamai cited the positive nurturing of the Lesotho Highland Water Project, initially signed in 1986 as a joint venture with South Africa, and department and sectoral cooperation enabled by the JBCC as instances of good practice. She, however, highlighted that many of the substantive memorandums of understanding (MoUs) flowing from the JBCC were dormant. Yet Motsamai indicated that the 2009 Agreement on the Facilitation of Cross Border Movement ofCitizens was one of the significant agreements under the JBCC and likely to be tailed by the new Thabane administration.

The third section highlighted trends in foreign policy decision making under Mosisili’s BCP (1993–1998) and LCD (1998–2012) administrations, including that relating to South Africa, underlining that foreign policy formulation was highly centralised in the executive. Motsamai observed that the ruling party majority in parliament was used negatively to thwart democratic debate over foreign policy, thus reducing parliament to a mere  ‘rubber stamp’. She further noted the prevailing limitations for public participation in policy making in the country, coupled with constrained access to government information amid the creation of many secretive ministries. The third section focused on the emergence of discord in relations with South Africa from 2009, also in the initial months of President Jacob Zuma’s administration, accompanied with the declining popularity of Mosisili in diplomatic circles. The last section identified some of the key future challenges in reviving the JBCC, including expectations from Lesotho on asymmetries in relations; concessions South Africa is likely to make; and addressing inherent mismatch in administrative capacities required in implementing joint projects. At the domestic level, the Thabane administration would be better served by a defined JBCC policy plan, which also speaks to the original mandate of the JBCC, namely its graduation from the LDC threshold. Motsamai, however, cautioned that unity in the ABC-led coalition as well as developing a consensus model on foreign policy that embraces broad participation in government and broad agreement on policies may be tricky.

Discussion session

The discussion elaborated on an array of issues highlighted above. The efficacy of the MMP model was challenged and participants sought an elaboration of instances where it mimicked a mixed member parallel system and not a proportional one. The response outlined the abuse of the system by parties where parties are ‘split’ into two, as a defensive move to acquire both constituency and PR seats. The above was explained as potentially leading to a parliament that takes the form of a mixed member parallel system falling somewhere between a majority and a PR system. The role of religion in domestic politics was raised. Responses noting the role of the Christian Council of Lesotho in resolving the disputed 2007 election were highlighted, but also the point that political parties in Lesotho were generally not religion-centric. There were further questions on the economic prospects of the country where presenters highlighted the imperatives for the new coalition government to focus on service delivery and policy continuity at local governance level (given the local government elections in 2011); policy implementation since there is general convergence of the coalition partners’ domestic policies; and the need to root out corruption, which historically renders governance in the country defunct. Participants, however, highlighted that analyses on prospects of the new coalition administration should also focus on human security dimensions of governance, cautioning against overly optimistic forecasts for the new administration. On civil military relations partial prospects for a democratised military army in Lesotho; lack of oversight in military–public relations; and public suspicions over the use and manipulation of the military apparatus by the new Thabane-led administration were highlighted as undesirable and requiring political leadership and redress. Following the last question and discussion round, Dr David Zounmenou closed proceedings.


The Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Divisionwishes to thank the governments of Finland and the Netherlands for their generous support and funding.


Report compiled by Dimpho Motsamai, Researcher, and Refiloe Joala, Intern, CPRA Pretoria Office


Ms Maria Maluleke

Fax: (012) 460 0997/8

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