The Lesotho government needs the opposition, which holds 48% of the seats, back in parliament in order to boost its own legitimacy and pass constitutional reforms, writes Dimpho Motsamai.
Last week, Lesotho’s parliament convened to discuss and pass its national budget without the opposition. This would be the second consecutive national budget passed without their full attendance. However, the opposition and government are close to hatching up a deal to end the boycott. But this remains to be seen.
The parliamentary logjam enters its ninth month, following the fleeing of Lesotho’s former prime minister, Thomas Thabane – now the official leader of the opposition in parliament – to South Africa, with his counterparts from the Basotho National Party (BNP) and Reformed Congress of Lesotho (RCL). They claimed there was a plot to kill them by members of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF).
The total number of opposition members of parliament is 55, while the governing coalition has 65 seats in Lesotho’s 120-member legislature. Despite a SADC intervention, the parliamentary opposition leadership is still in exile and their remaining colleagues have boycotted parliamentary sittings.
They demand the safe return of their leaders and other exiles, and the removal of Lesotho’s army chief, Tlali Kamoli. The government has denied the accusations of insecurity from the opposition, although Thabane has insisted that he would only return to Lesotho under SADC guard.
As a multiparty democracy, the effectiveness of the party system in Lesotho’s parliament depends on the relationship between the government and the opposition parties.
The continuing opposition boycott thus reflects the intransigence of Basotho politicians in resolving a very clear political stalemate that has an adverse effect on the running of government and its legitimacy. This could affect Lesotho’s standing in the international community because the democratic credibility of the government could be put into question.
The importance of the boycott also lies in the fact that the governing coalition has a relatively slim majority, with 54 percent of seats in the legislature and a strong political opposition of 46 percent. Because of the strong opposition, it can be difficult for government to unilaterally institute constitutional reforms as they would not have the requisite two-thirds majority.
The boycott has also amplified what has become the elephant in the room in Lesotho’s politics: the position of its army general, Kamoli. He was discharged from this position by the previous coalition government in 2014 and Thabane accused him of a coup attempt. He was reinstated last year by Lesotho’s new coalition government under Prime Minister Mosisili.
It was under him that the former LDF commander Lieutenant-General Mahao was killed by his colleagues who had come to arrest him for an alleged mutiny plot. Twenty-three soldiers were subsequently charged with mutiny and incarcerated. The court martial of the 23 soldiers has been postponed until May.
A SADC commission of inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Mahao’s killing, as well as the political disturbances in the country, recommended that he be removed from his post. The commission’s report also recommended that government ensure the safe return of the exiled opposition leaders and that the mutiny suspects be released.
Donors have described the prevailing situation as a step backwards in Lesotho’s democratic development, while the SADC threatened it with suspension for failing to abide by its decisions. Yet, none of the recommendations have been implemented and it is business as usual in Maseru.
The SADC has given the government a new deadline of March 31 to prepare a road map for implementing the recommendations and will deploy an oversight committee to monitor progress on the ground. Meanwhile, the opposition maintains that it will not go back to parliament to give legitimacy to what they perceive to be an unaccountable government.
The parliamentary stand-off now also rests on the implementation of the SADC report, which, by many indications, will be a very slow process – if it happens at all. According to Tsoeu Petlane, director of the Maseru-based NGO, the Transformation Resource Centre, there is little political will to implement the report’s recommendations. “Mosisili did not release the report to the public, but to parliament instead.
“This has implications on how it will be processed. One of his most glaring comments was that the commission’s work was reprehensible in many aspects. He also said that the recommendations were not binding and that some will not see the light of day.”
With regards to the opposition boycott, Petlane argues that the strategy has outlived its political utility. “This is particularly so because it is denying them input into debates on crucial national issues, including the interrogation of the SADC commission report.
“They also need to be in parliament to insist on other priorities, including the human rights commission bill that is currently under discussion. If passed in their absence, they may see Lesotho establish an institution that does not meet international standards. This would be a disservice to Basotho beyond the current term of government and parliament.”
Normally, opposition boycotts can paralyse parliament and affect government functioning. But government appears to have a different view. The political adviser to Lesotho Prime Minister Dr Fako Likoti argues that parliament can work effectively without the opposition.
The move is mostly geared to gain political mileage. “There is no reason why the opposition is boycotting parliament. The exiled opposition is not being honest about their safety; they have been spotted numerous times in Maseru and are simply refusing to go home for political mileage,” he says.
“The issue of the opposition in parliament is not negotiable, especially because the boycott has nothing to do with parliament. They left parliament on their own accord. In fact, they are violating Lesotho’s constitution.”
But, clearly, its effectiveness would be undermined by the absence of opposition legislators. In the main, it would operate like a one-party regime, an image the government should steer away from. Therefore, regardless of the above provisions and the position of government, the current regime needs the opposition back in parliament to bolster its legitimacy and its commitment to change. It would also spur an easing of donor pressure, and that from SADC.
* Motsamai is a researcher on Southern Africa at the Institute for Security Studies.
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