A year of coalition government in Lesotho

By Thabang Matjama | July 26th, 2013
How has Lesotho's 3-party coalition done in its first year in office
How has Lesotho's 3-party coalition done in its first year in office

While there were celebrations both in Lesotho and around the region when the opposition won the elections in 2012 and power was peacefully handed over, no one was entirely sure how the new government would cope – not only because Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili had been in charge for so long but also because it was a coalition government.

Used to single party rule, the people of Lesotho wondered whether the new coalition – involving the All Basotho Convention (ABC), the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) and the Basotho National Party (BNP) – would be able to overcome the challenges that coalitions face across the world. Or whether the various factions would be unable to work together and the coalition would slowly fall apart.

Before the May elections, two of the coalition parties – the LCD and the ABC – had expressed similar plans for changing Lesotho’s fortunes, citing the need to transform the mining, agricultural and media sectors. But in reality, the coalition was not based on political ideology but on a determination to wrest power from Mosisili, who had run the country for 14 years – and who had fallen out with both the leaders of the ABC and LCD when they had been working alongside him.

But this caused some concern. Because the people of Lesotho need more than a change of government to help them tackle the serious socio-economic challenges facing the nation. They need a government that can deliver services, boost the economy, support agriculture, tackle corruption – the list goes on. Would a coalition of different parties be able to take the tough decisions necessary to address these issues? Would it be able to improve the livelihoods of the Basotho people? Would it be able to stay afloat long enough to make a difference?

Advantages of a coalition government

Two reasons for optimism were that many of the LCD members had recently served in government under Mosisili and that advocates of proportional representation have long suggested that a coalition government results in more consensus-based politics since all the parties have to compromise to get measures past. With just over 50 percent of the votes, the coalition had a mandate to govern – but with only a slight majority in parliament, governing would be hard since any defections in parliament could tip the balance towards the opposition.

The situation requires a lot of sacrifices for all members of the coalition since not all their wishes will be met – and also requires them to keep a close eye on public opinion, which means that they might be more likely to govern in the best interests of all the people rather than just their core supporters.

Challenges faced by coalition governments

Coalition governments are often fragile and this is certainly the case in Lesotho, where the three parties have the slimmest of majorities in parliament – meaning that any defection could see the government lose control of the assembly. Another worry is that conflicting ideologies can lead to lengthy stalemates, which undermine service delivery, as coalition factions argue about implementation strategies and priorities – or that certain compromises might hamper performance. For example, Prime Minister Tom Thabane said before the elections that he did not like a big cabinet and that he wanted to stuff his government with technocrats that would enhance the implementation of his party’s policies. But he was forced to agree to a bloated cabinet in an effort to accommodate everyone in the coalition.

Yet another challenge faced by all coalitions is the temptation for the various parties to use their position – and government resources – to campaign for the next elections. Instead of governing, they use their positions in government to try and secure greater recognition and more seats at the next election, focusing on the next polls rather than current priorities.

Successes and failures of Lesotho's coalition

So how did the coalition do in its first year?

It can point to a number of key achievements. Within the first 100 days, the coalition unshackled the Directorate on Criminal and Economic Offences (DCEO) from direct government control and giving parliament authority over it – a move that was clearly designed demonstrate the new authorities’ determination to weed out corruption in government and public enterprises. And some high profile cases have ended up in the courts as a result.

Within a year, the coalition government also came up with a new salary structure for public officials for the first time in over twenty years. Many rural gravel roads have been rehabilitated. Broadcasting changes have paved the way for privately owned radio stations to cover more than half of the country. And the government also stimulated agricultural activity by giving subsidies to many people engaged in subsistence farming.

But – as with all governments – some promises have not been kept. The coalition had promised that public officials, including cabinet ministers and MPs, would have to declare their assets – but this has still not been enforced. The government has also failed to address the issue of salaries for some key civil servants, such as correctional officers and nurses, which threaten the delivery of key services. And factory workers are also threatening to strike after they did not receive the minimum wage that they were apparently promised.

But the coalition has survived despite these unfulfilled promises and its razor-thin majority. Whether it can stay afloat all the way until the next polls remains to be seen, but even if it does not – it has shown the people of Lesotho that coalition governments can work.

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