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Tiny Lesotho votes tomorrow in the most hotly contested election since Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili came to power in a 1998 vote that sparked rioting and a South African military intervention.
After 14 years in power, Mosisili has established himself as a towering figure in this mountainous kingdom, bordered on all sides by SA.
He has stayed in power through elections consistently endorsed by observers, even though Lesotho’s political disputes sometimes erupt in violence.
Mosisili survived a 2009 military-style assault on his official residence that left four people dead. Eight people are standing trial, and the precise motives remain unclear.
But signs of discontent with his rule are everywhere.
A Gallup poll released last month ranked Mosisili among Africa’s five most despised leaders, with only 39 percent of those surveyed approving of his job performance – placing him alongside the likes of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
“There is an atmosphere of change, but it is predominantly in the urban centres, which are in the minority in terms of the way our constituencies are demarcated,” said Hoolo Nyane, director of the Transformation Resource Centre, a leading civil society group.
Within the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), which Mosisili brought to power in 1998, efforts to push him from the top spot provoked a dramatic split in February as he resigned from the party and launched his own Democratic Congress, taking most parliamentarians with him.
Now the LCD is led by former communications minister Mothejoa Metsing, who led the movement to remove Mosisili as party leader.
The party’s leadership conference planned for January was cancelled at the last minute amid fears that the dispute could turn violent.
The two rivals are running in a three-horse race with the opposition All Basotho Convention and its leader Tom Thabane.
“It is an interesting scenario,” said Nyane. “Unfortunately our election has always been about personality cults and patronage.
There are some issues that are trying to find a stage in our politics – for example the question of our relationship with South Africa and the question of youth unemployment are moving slowly to the centre. But they are not going to determine how the voting goes. Voting is going to go according to personality cults, geographical area, etc.”
Mosisili is a master of manipulating Lesotho’s politics. He rose to power after splitting with the former ruling Basotho Congress Party, the country’s first democratically elected government. Although observers backed his election to power, opposition protests turned so violent that SA led a regional military intervention to restore order. Tomorrow’s vote is widely seen as a toss-up in one of the most fiercely fought campaigns since independence from Britain in 1966.