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Johannesburg, South Africa. August 7, 1998


protesters in Maseru

Discontent: Protesters take to the streets in Maseru
photograph: micheal allentoft

Tensions high after Lesotho election fraud

Tensions run high in Lesotho, with marches, beatings and policewater-cannon charges, as a belated recount reveals evidence of election fraud. WILLIAM BOOT reports


ONG-SIMMERING dissatisfaction over Lesotho's May 23 elections finally reached boiling point this week, and it is clear the political temperature is not going to come down until the issue is resolved.

Supporters of opposition parties marched on the royal palace; they beat policemen with sticks; they held all-night vigils to prod King Letsie III to action; and they held Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili hostage in Parliament for hours before police dispersed them with water-cannons and rubber bullets.

The evidence is all but irrefutable: the May 23 elections were rigged. Votes in nearly half the country's 80 constituencies were recounted this week. It has been found that the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) won only 12 seats, less than a third of the total. The as yet unofficial recount stands in stark contrast with the May results counted under the auspices of Lesotho's Independent Electoral Commission (IEC): the official election result gave the LCD 68 of the 69 contested constituencies.

The ongoing recount follows a ruling in the Lesotho High Court on July 22 which ordered that Lesotho's three main opposition parties the Basotho National Party, the Basotholand Congress Party (BCP) and the Maramatlou Freedom Party be allowed access to previously suppressed IEC documentation. Last weekend members of the Lesotho Mounted Police discovered a large amount of dumped electoral documents on the banks of the Caledon River.

But even before the IEC documents were made available, it was already clear something was amiss. A forensic audit by South African consultants OF&A of the Lesotho voters' roll revealed some seemingly inexplicable demographic peculiarities.

Notably there was a pattern of recorded birth dates which defied scientific explanation. In every constituency, analysis of the roll revealed a vastly higher number of births (sometimes four or five times as many) on January 1 than on any other day in that month. Even more puzzling, the same was true in the ascending sequence: February 2, March 3, April 4.

The audit also found that, recorded in the voters' roll, a larger number of people had birthdays in the first half of the month than in the second.

This led the auditors to conclude: "It is not possible at all that the above pattern could have occurred naturally. It is our further submission that the above occurred as a result, and is an undeniable indication, of the fact that the voters' roll was manipulated."

Exactly how the voters' roll or voting at polling booths, monitored by not only the opposition parties themselves but also Commonwealth and South African Development Community observers, might have been manipulated remains unclear.

However, stories are beginning to emerge which could suggest a less than independent electoral commission. The Mail & Guardian knows of at least three instances where claims have been made that the initial count conducted at the polling stations, in the presence of observers and members of all political parties was at variance with the IEC's count. In at least two instances, the LCD candidate had already conceded defeat to his BCP opponent before the IEC announced him as the winner.

But the LCD furiously denies any electoral fraud took place. As the ruling party, it shows no signs of wanting to stand down. A top-level bosberaad on July 24 and 25 considered a series of drastic measures, including banishing Letsie and declaring a national state of emergency, to maintain control of the territory.

Although these plans were apparently abandoned after opposition parties issued a press release in protest, there are other potential threats to the constitutional order. On July 24, while the Cabinet and senior security force officials were locked in the bosberaad, the opposition axis sent a letter to Mosisili asking for an opportunity to address chiefs of the security forces. It is understood they wanted to attempt to forestall conflict between the armed forces and the increasingly angry populace, and partly to prevent a widely rumoured pending military coup.

Mosisili described the request as "presumptuous" and "a distinct attempt to politicise the security forces, to sow dissension among its members and create insecurity and instability in the country". He rejected it outright.

Sources in Lesotho say a potentially devastating conflict, with factions taking arms on behalf of political parties, remains a real possibility. It is also worth recording that, in advance of this week's march on the royal palace, Lesotho's police commissioner gave orders that roadblocks be set up on routes into Maseru.

Orders were that, while ordinary traffic be allowed through, protesters in buses should be turned back. The fact that his orders were not carried out says much about where the hearts of many security forces members lie. Buses were cursorily stopped, but then allowed through.Meanwhile the opposition is calling on Letsie to exercise his constitutional right to intervene and forestall a crisis. This week they handed over a memorandum presenting the evidence of electoral fraud, and "imploring" the king to "intervene with the aim of pronouncing Your Majesty's findings on the authenticity of the 1998 general elections".

Letsie has been reluctant to do this. Earlier involvements in the politics of the day led to his banishment and the withholding of his crown, and as yet no official agency of state has formally asked him to exercise his constitutional right to annul the elections.

With the king's hands still tied, the best hope of a resolution lies in Harare this weekend, where President Nelson Mandela is meeting Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe on issues of regional security.

Both leaders have been appraised of the situation, and requests have been forwarded from various parties that the Southern African Development Communities guarantee not only stability in a potentially explosive time, but also the fairness of the re-elections for which the Basotho are agitating.-- Electronic Mail&Guardian, August 7, 1998.


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