- Lesotho, a small mountainous country surrounded by South Africa, provides its much larger neighbour, the continent's economic powerhouse, with water to fuel its industrial growth, and political volatility to test its patience.
On Saturday, Lesotho's roughly 1.8 million people - over half of which, according to the UN, live on US$2 or less a day - will vote in a snap election called after 18 members of the ruling party, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), crossed the floor to the opposition party, the All Basotho Convention (ABC), in a mass defection late last year.
Since achieving independence from Britain in 1966, Lesotho has held four elections. The first post-independence election in 1970 was annulled by Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan, which ushered in 16 years of a state of emergency, only to end in a military coup, followed by another round of rule by decree with an executive monarch at the helm, a brief return to democracy in the early 1990s, another military coup in 1994, a return to democracy with a disputed election in 1998, leading to an army mutiny that brought a Southern African Development Community military force to intervene, under the leadership of South Africa, to put an end to the unrest.
The source of Lesotho's political tension is not ethnic divisions - 99.7 percent of the population are Basotho - but the high premium placed on being in government, Denis Kadima, deputy leader of the observer mission sent to Lesotho by the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA), told IRIN. "The state is the main provider of salaries. Those outside of the state are almost nowhere, as there is no real private sector to go to."
One of the mainstays of the country's US$1.3 billion annual gross domestic product is the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme, a six-dam project scheduled for completion in 2015 but already providing water and hydroelectricity to both Lesotho and South Africa. In an arid region with increasing demands for electricity amid growing energy shortages, the water scheme has become the lynchpin of sustained growth in Gauteng, South Africa's economic heartland, and a divisive issue in Lesotho.
"Poverty is deep and widespread: 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, which is unacceptable, considering that Basotho earns over 20 million Maloti (US$3 million) a month in royalties from the Lesotho Highland Water Project," the ABC manifesto said.
The importance of Lesotho breaking away from its volatile political history and holding well-run, peaceful elections is borne out by the host of election monitoring organisations that have descended on the country, including groups from the African Union, the United States, the Southern African Development Community, parliamentary forums from the region, and independent and Commonwealth observers.
According to a pre-election report by the US-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, after parliament was dissolved and a 90-day election timetable put in place, there was "intense pressure on electoral officials to update and correct the voter registration list" to hold the country's first-ever snap elections.
"In short, this 'extraordinary election' calls for extraordinary efforts on behalf of the electoral authorities, government, political parties, media and civil society to ensure that laws and the rules of the electoral framework are followed in a spirit of maximum flexibility, and with enhanced efforts to ensure equity and fairness in the process. For some, doubts remain as to whether this has taken place," the report commented.
Hoolo Nyane, democracy and human rights coordinator for a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) umbrella body, the Lesotho Council of NGOs, said in a pre-election assessment that the situation was conducive to free and fair elections, despite the public outcry over inaccurate electoral lists, which had since been "corrected".
In 2002, a mixed electoral system was introduced in an attempt to end wild shifts of support from one political party to another at each election: for example, in the 1998 election, in which a 'first past the post' system was used, one party secured 79 of the 80 available seats.
In Saturday's poll there will be 120 seats up for grabs, 80 of which will be based on a 'first past the post' system, with the remaining 40 seats handed out on a proportional representation system according to party lists.
Kadima, whose EISA observer mission is being led Sir Ketumile Masire, former president of Botswana, said the rationale was to encourage consensus politics and nation building.
There are 14 political parties competing in the elections, the two main parties being the LCD and the ABC. But there is little to choose between the two, if judged by the roughly equal numbers attending their final election rallies on Sunday. The parties have tried to set themselves apart during campaigning, but their manifestos show much common ground, such as better education for the youth and poverty alleviation.
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