Months of immobilising factionalism in the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) finally split the party this week.
Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili is planning to leave the LCD to establish a breakaway party, tentatively named the Ntsu Democratic Congress (NDC), pending a vote of no-confidence by opposition parties backed by his opponents in the LCD, under party secretary general Mothejoa Metsing.
The vote was originally scheduled for this week but was withdrawn at the last minute, part of a cat-and-mouse game by the opposition and the prime minister. Mosisili had hoped to announce the launch of the new NDC after winning the no-confidence vote, which by Wednesday (8 February) it seemed he would. If the opposition manages to get enough support to win the no-confidence vote, Mosisili's new party will fail to hit the ground running.
His decision to form the breakaway party follows effective defeat at a special LCD conference last month (27-28 January 2012). Mosisili supporters contest the legitimacy of the conference, but its mood - and control of the national executive committee by Metsing - was sufficient to persuade Mosisili it was time to exit.
Significantly, his new party will seek to draw on the LCD's heritage by including the name of founder Ntsu Mokhehle.
The timing of the split is vital. The term of Lesotho's Parliament expires on 15 March this year, and a general election is scheduled for May - the constitution specifies that an election must take place within three months of the dissolution of Parliament.
Mosisili is banking on his considerable personal clout with those LCD constituencies and MPs still loyal to him. Some in Maseru's political class insist Mosisili is offering up to R1-million (US$132000) to clarify the minds of Cabinet ministers and key party figures when choosing between his new party and Metsing's LCD.
In his 15 years in office, Mosisili has successfully cast himself as a leader to be revered, a status that currently verges on the cultish: a massive billboard portrait announcing his honorary doctorate at the National University now dominates downtown Maseru.
Metsing will now head the LCD, which, though weakened by the split, has been boosted by the tactical support of seven of Parliament's nine opposition parties, including the more sizeable All Basotho Convention and the Lesotho Workers' Party, plus the smaller Popular Front for Democracy and the Marematlou Freedom Party. If this alliance persists, as is currently the plan, the next government will be a coalition.
Mosisili is confident that he has the support of more than 40 of the LCD's 62 MPs, but he stands to be outnumbered by the remaining LCD MPs together with their new opposition allies, who between them told hold some 32 seats.
Much depends on how many more MPs Mosisili can win over and what the LCD's constituencies decide to do now that he has abandoned the party, causing uncertain prospects at the polls.
The split in the ruling party follows mounting public impatience with the 71-year-old prime minister's response to chronic factional disputes widely seen as responsible for the government's political paralysis. But for Mosisili, a new party is a matter of principle and, as he told supporters last week, he sees nothing wrong in creating new formations.
For many the 45-year-old Metsing is an unknown quantity who lacks Mosilisi's craft and experience. But his frustration with Mosisili's leadership style, exasperation that "the old man" refuses to step down despite repeated promises to do so, and Metsing's dismissal last week as communications minister, have won him much sympathy. In the past Metsing has privately bemoaned the lack of policy direction in the LCD and could be persuaded by his new minority-party allies to adopt more proactive policies to address Lesotho's myriad problems, not least chronic unemployment and poverty, burgeoning HIV and TB rates, and rocky relations with South Africa.