10 July 2014

Lesotho: Turbulence Ahead After Interparty Talks Crumble

Photo: ComSec
The Chair of Commonwealth observers to Lesotho elections, former Malawi President Dr Bakili Muluzi at a polling station in Maseru Lesotho (file photo).

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After nearly three rounds of inter-party talks between Lesotho's government coalition partners, the All Basotho Convention (ABC), the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) and the Basotho National Party (BNP), it is uncertain that the parties will fall out, but it does seem imminent.

This follows many months of friction between the three parties, which formed a coalition government after the May 2012 general elections failed to produce an outright winner.

The ABC is the dominant party in the coalition government with 30 seats. The LDC has 26 and the BNP 5, giving the coalition 61 seats in the country's 120-seat parliament.

A simple majority is needed to form government and the main opposition Democratic Congress (DC) has 48 seats, with the remaining 11 distributed amongst smaller parties.

At stake is not only the discord within the coalition government but also a constitutional and political legitimacy crisis ahead of the country's next general elections in 2017.

The inter-party talks were initiated last month on the heels of attempts by the opposition to pass a motion of no confidence in the ABC-led coalition. These attempts led to: Parliament being prorogued (suspended) for nine months; accusations among the coalition partners that they were courting the main opposition DC with a view to forming a new government; and a mediation by Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba, who chairs the Southern African Development Community's Organ on Defence and Security.

The unravelling of the coalition government, and talks to rescue it, also take place in a precarious security situation. There is a tiff between the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) and the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS), and some domestic observers believe it cannot be resolved by the country's Prime Minister and the leader of the ABC-led coalition.

The first round of talks was swift, since the three parties adjourned early to enable them to consult internally and with their constituencies for a fresh mandate on the future of the coalition.

The second round of talks was precipitous, as it resulted in one of the parties, the LCD, submitting draft amendments to the original June 2012 coalition agreement signed by the three parties that stand to be rejected by the ABC in particular.

The key partner to the coalition, the LDC - specifically its leader Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing - has been vocal in expressing dissatisfaction with what is perceived as Prime Minister Tom Thabane's unilateral decision-making in government, which is regarded as contrary to the June 2012 coalition agreement's provisions and spirit.

The amendments to the original agreement were sent to the ABC and the BNP for consideration ahead of another round of talks, set for today, July 10. The proposal is likely to be rejected by both the ABC and the BNP, as it primarily reflects LDC grievances with the ABC as opposed to serving as a consensus document for overall coalition grievances and addressing the challenge of governing.

The proposed amendments call, among others, for the current prorogation of parliament to be shortened in order to coincide with the normal parliamentary winter recess, and for parliament to reopen in September.

Other key amendments focus on: more equitable allocation of government positions within the existing coalition; halting the transfer of certain portfolios to the Office of the Prime Minister; and reviewing the security of tenure and dismissal of officials from key institutions undergirding constitutional democracy.

The third round of talks is thus in limbo. Despite the best intentions for political dialogue to work as an antidote to coalition fissures, the process is accompanied by high levels of mistrust and attempts to by coalition partners to outmanoeuvre one another.

Three levels of challenge lie ahead for the coalition talks.

Firstly, the leaders of the DC and the LDC signed an agreement last month, on June 11, that signalled a new alliance between the two parties to form a new coalition government. The agreement, signed a day after the Prime Minister's decision to prorogue parliament, envisages DC leader - and former prime minister - Pakalitha Mosisili as the prime minister and Metsing as his deputy.

It also made provision for ministerial posts for smaller parties in the opposition - the "Congress" parties, namely, the Basotho Batho Democratic Congress, the Basotho Congress for Democracy and the Lesotho People's Congress.

The agreement has raised accusations of double-dealing on the part of the LDC and confusion over whether it was truly rescinded ahead of the current talks among the ruling parties to allow for meaningful strengthening of the coalition. Related to this is a seeming olive branch extended to Congress parties in the agreement which may have the impact of strengthening "Congress' solidarity in Parliament and thus rendering void the convenience of the coalition with the ABC, expressed as problematic by the LDC leadership.

The second issue relates to a lack of consensus within parties on their future in the coalition. Divisions have emerged within the LDC over its DC alliance agreement, with a reported 60 percent of LCD members opting to remain in the ABC-led coalition. In the case of the BNP, its commitment to the coalition is further threatened by its probable ideological bias to "Congress" parties such as the LDC and the DC.

This is linked to the third issue: unresolved questions of harmonizing political ideology among the coalition partners. Arguably, the coalition was formed on the basis of political convenience and expediency rather than around ideological similarities between the governing parties. And apart from the coalition fissures generally, deep-rooted failures of governance are adding to the crisis.

Four scenarios may play out.

  • A total collapse of the ABC-led coalition, with the LCD leaning towards alliances with the DC and other congress parties, despite internal LCD differences over rescinding its alliance with the ABC;
  • A review and probable redrafting of the draft amendments to the original June 2012 coalition agreement to resolve contentious issues and reflect ABC, LCD and BNP consensus on their future working relationship. This would end the coalition's impasse and probably but not certainly lead to a decision by the ABC to rescind the prorogation.
  • The continuation of the current impasse, with Parliament prorogued until February 2015. Once Parliament is opened, opposition parties would lodge no-confidence motions against the coalition, which may affect its dissolution.
  • The establishment of a government of national unity comprising the country's major political parties, but with an emphasis on the preservation of the prevailing coalition as a foundation.

In the end, much will rest on the ability of the coalition's leaders to respond with urgency to the operational issues hampering its durability. Calls for more government stability are being voiced not only in the country, but also from regional and international partners. Equally, calls for rescinding the prorogation of Parliament, as proposed by the LDC, are gaining traction with other political parties in Parliament, which may lead to new alliances geared to oust the ABC.

Dimpho Motsamai is a policy analyst with the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis programme of the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria. This analysis is published as edited by AllAfrica.

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