ARI on TwitterARI on LinkedinARI on FacebookARI on iTunesARI RSS Feed

Lesotho and the limits of electoral reform

While electoral reforms were expected to prevent one-party rule and increase democratic roots in Lesotho, such optimism ignores underlying problems.  Rather than seeing electoral reforms as the solution, such reforms need to be accompanied by constitutional reforms and guarantees to opposition parties.

Lesotho is confronted by institutional weakness, economic decline and political crisis. The European Union and the US-sponsored Millennium Challenge Corporation have withheld aid, while opposition parties have boycotted the parliament. The latter development in effect turned Lesotho into a one-party system. Amnesty International accuses Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s government of intimidation and death threats against “lawyers, civil society leaders, and journalists”, while the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) under Chief Tlali Kamoli repeatedly flouts High Court orders to release soldiers accused of fomenting a mutiny on behalf of the late Lt. General Mahao.

Recent international efforts to resolve the current crisis were led by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The 10 member SADC Commission of Inquiry found that an alleged mutiny plot by Lt. General Mahao did not exist, while calling for a litany of institutional solutions. These include constitutional amendments to remove jurisdictional overlaps between the police and the LDF; the removal of Lt. General Kamoli; amnesty to exiles and soldiers accused of mutinying; and the establishment of an SADC oversight committee. Yet, Prime Minister Mosisili subsequently refused to implement these solutions; with some suggesting that the existence of over 20 political parties weakens civilian politicians’ control over the LDF.

Lesotho’s underlying political paralysis arises from a long history of political competition and intermittent conflict. Despite a turbulent post-independence history, the country gradually democratised in the 1990s.  Yet the legislative electoral system of single-member districts (SMDs) with only one winner per constituency continued. To no surprise, supporters of the opposition viewed the system as patently unfair. Although the most common form of electoral system in anglophone Africa, SMDs favour larger parties and leave little room for smaller parties. In Lesotho, the electoral system has been disproportionately unkind to the opposition. For example, in 1993 the Basutoland Congress Party (BCP) won all 65 seats in the National Assembly with only 74.8% of the vote. Lesotho expanded the number of parliamentary seats to 80 ahead of the 1998 election, but this had little effect. A breakaway party from the BCP, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), won 79 seats with only 60.7% of the vote.

As many political scientists point out, democracy relies on elections, but also on losers consenting to the results. An electoral system that fails to represent large numbers of voters and fails to convince today’s losers that they can be tomorrow’s winners is unlikely to safeguard democracy for long. With this in mind, Lesotho enacted electoral reforms in 2002, opting for mixed member constituencies alongside proportional representation (PR) based on a party list. Such hybrids have become commonplace since the 1990s, with proponents claiming that it encourages constituency service and provides greater representation for smaller parties. Greater proportionality was immediately evident: of the expanded 120-seat legislature: only 77 seats went to the LCD.

While this is certainly good news for Lesotho, and our previous research suggests that Lesotho elections appear to lack the electoral fraud often endemic in democratising countries, electoral reforms have not been a cure-all. While some scholars have suggested that legal restrictions on floor crossing (that is when legislators change parties post-election) has brought greater stability to Lesotho, these restrictions only applied to party list legislators not those directly elected in constituencies.

Nor is it clear that voters understand how the mixed electoral system works. This is not unique to Lesotho: evidence from Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and New Zealand suggest public confusion, partially attributable to the gap between expectations and election outcomes.

Basotho must have been perplexed when the country again changed its electoral system in 2012. No longer did voters cast two ballots – one for a constituency candidate and another for their preferred party. Instead candidates were elected to represent 80 single-member constituencies, with aggregate results at the national level used to allocate the remaining 40 party list seats. The one-vote system thus forces supporters of smaller parties to forego any expectation of winning in constituencies and instead focus on seats awarded through proportional representation (PR).

The National Assembly elections of 2012 and 2015 did not yield clear winners. Prior to the first vote, the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) split when Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili refused to step down after 14 years in power. Mosisili formed a new party to contest the elections, the Democratic Congress (DC). This provided for a three-way race between the DC, the rump of the LCD, and the All Basotho Convention (ABC).

The new mixed member system prevented the Democratic Congress from obtaining a working majority. Although the DC won 41 out of 80 single member constituency seats, it took only 7 out of the 40 PR seats. Despite the DC being the largest party in the National Assembly, with 48 out of the 120 seats, Mosisili was forced to cede power to a fragile coalition led by the ABC’s Tom Thabane.

A similar pattern was discernable in the 2015 elections: the DC won 37 constituency seats, but 10 PR seats; the ABC won 40 constituency seats, and 6 PR seats; the LCD won 2 constituency seats, and 10 PR seats; and, the Basotho National Party acquired 1 constituency seat, and 6 PR seats. Numerous smaller parties had PR seats but no constituency seats: in 2012, 8 such parties had 13 PR seats; and, in 2015, 6 such parties had 8 PR seats.

Last year, Mosisili returned as prime minister when the DC forged a seven-party coalition with the LCD, and five other parties that had not won a constituency seat: Marematlou Freedom Party, Basotho Congress Party, National Independent Party, Lesotho People’s Congress, and the Popular Front for Democracy.

The reliance on smaller parties with PR seats has, thus, prevented the ABC in 2012 and DC in 2015 from attaining ruling majorities without coalitions with numerous small parties. In this vein, former Minister of Planning Moeketsi Majoro has called for electoral reforms to prevent small parties from playing spoilers, along with the transformation of partisan civil-military alliances, to increase political stability and prevent recurring conflict.

Under existing conditions, unusual electoral patterns may convince the opposition that the system is yet again stacked against them. For example, in our earlier work after the 2015 election, we noticed a troubling trend: that as the percentage of ballots rejected in constituency elections increases, this corresponded with the Democratic Congress (DC) winning the district. While we cautioned against viewing this as evidence of electoral fraud – noticing in fact that this may have only influenced one district which the DC lost – such patterns could be used by disgruntled supporters of opposition parties, especially as turnout, at only 48%, suggests suspicion about the electoral process more broadly.

Lesotho’s combination of weak institutions, a declining economy, and seemingly perpetual political crisis cannot be resolved solely by electoral reform. Rather, the broader constitutional framework and competitive arena require limitations on the majority and assurances to a concerned opposition.


Timothy S. Rich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University. His research focuses on mixed member electoral systems and public opinion.

Vasabjit Banerjee is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Mississippi State University and a Research Associate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pretoria. His research focuses on contentious politics, electoral institutions, and foreign policy.

Featured image reproduced by kind permission of Lesotho Times