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By Ron Derby
Maseru - Voters in the southern African mountain kingdom of Lesotho cast their ballots eagerly on Saturday in an election that has provided a rare competitive challenge to the party that has ruled for a decade.
The Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) faces a determined onslaught from the All Basuto Congress (ABC), led by former communications minister Thomas Thabane.
Accusations of irregularities against the LCD have created tension in the run-up to the poll, but observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) said after the polls closed that there were no signs of irregularities.
"I witnessed lots of anxiety to vote and the only issue was some people's names being missing from the voter's roll. So far, there have been no major indications of anything wrong," said Patrick Balopi, Botswana's parliamentary speaker.
The first results are expected early on Sunday.
Lesotho's 1,8 million people are among the poorest in the Africa, struggling with drought, unemployment and one of the worst levels of HIV/AIDS in the continent.
Thabane, a former LCD insider, has galvanised the political scene since breaking away last October, taking many LCD members of parliament with him, to form the ABC.
"People want change and we are the symbol of that change," he said at his constituency in Makhakhoeng on Saturday.
The breakaway left the government of Pakalitha Mosilsili with the slimmest of majorities in the 120-member chamber and forced it to call an early election.
The 1998 election ended in riots after the LCD was accused of vote-rigging after winning all but one seat in parliament.
In 2002 the LCD won 77 out of 80 directly contested or first-past-the-post seats, with 54 percent of the vote. That election was endorsed as free and fair by international observers but rejected by the opposition as fraudulent.
Since 2002, the assembly has also included 40 seats assigned by proportional representation.
Political analysts say this election is too close to call.
LCD national executive committee Monyane Moleleki said he was confident his party would remain in power.
"Out of the 80 constituencies, we could lose not more than 5 all in all," he said in an interview late on Friday.
Thabane, 67, is an earthy character who often campaigns in rural areas in tattered sneakers, and his rallies have drawn big and mostly young crowds.
Political expert Fako Likoti from the National University of Lesotho said the ABC was likely to take much of the young vote.
One government official, who declined to be named, said the ABC's participation had revived voter interest.
"In the last parliament, there was no opposition. This time around I see the country having a very strong opposition, which could only enhance parliament," he said.
While the LCD has been widely criticised for failing to deliver on promises of job creation, economic growth and success against HIV/AIDS, it has urged voters to back it with plans to increase old age pensions and expand free education.
Moleleki said the LCD had entrenched democracy, empowered women in local government, helped to introduce 10 private radio and television stations, built rural roads and created 30,000 new jobs in the past five years.
But he said if the LCD lost, it would accept the result:
"We need not only pay lip service to democracy. If I lose I will either be a backbench member of parliament or a farmer next week." - Reuters