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Opposition takes early lead in Lesotho polls

A Basotho voter is marked with indellible ink after voting at a polling station on the outskirts of Maseru (© 2009 AFP)

Lesotho looked set for its first coalition government after closely fought general elections this weekend, with partial returns Sunday showing that no party would likely win a majority.

Saturday’s election is the most closely watched since Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili came to power in 1998 polls that were violently rejected by the opposition, sparking a South African military intervention to restore order.

Mosisili threw open the race when he resigned from the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy amid a leadership squabble in February. He is running for re-election under the banner of his new Democratic Congress.

With 45 of the country’s 80 districts reporting, Mosisili had claimed 11 seats, with 11 more going to the LCD.

In the lead was the main opposition leader Tom Thabane and his All Basotho Convention with 20 seats, mainly in his urban strongholds.

The initial results sparked jubilant celebrations outside the vote counting centre where hundreds of his supporters sang and danced, blowing plastic vuvuzela trumpets and waving the party’s green flag emblazoned with a red and yellow sun.

“Mosisili is going tomorrow!” shouted one jubilant woman.

The Independent Electoral Commission said final results should come by Tuesday.

Most of Lesotho’s two million people live in remote mountain villages, which have supported Mosisili in past polls.

The question now is whether they will support him, or the party he once led.

LCD is now headed by former communications minister Mothejoa Metsing, who led the movement to remove Mosisili as party leader.

“We are going for a coalition. I think ABC will partner with LCD,” said Malekhase Moea, 26, who works for a cell phone company. He voted for one of the 15 small parties also contesting the election but joined the ABC celebrations.

“What we want to see is development, not people enriching themselves in the government,” he said.

Personal feuds among the three main party leaders have largely drowned out the worries of most ordinary Basotho. More than half of the nation’s two million people live in poverty.

Textile factories and diamond mines are the only major industries, but jobs are so scarce that many seek work in South Africa, which completely surrounds this landlocked nation.

Three quarters of homes have no electricity, one third have no running water, and nearly a quarter of adults is HIV-positive.

Many still travel by horse or donkey, bracing against the early winter cold by wrapping themselves in blankets styled like capes around their shoulders.

Despite the peaceful campaign, many still remember Mosisili’s rise to power in 1998 elections, which were endorsed by observers but disputed by opposition protests.

Protests turned so violent that South Africa led a regional military intervention to restore order.

Former Zambian president Rupiah Banda, heading an observer mission for the Johannesburg-based Election Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, endorsed this weekend’s polls as largely free and fair.

“The will of the Basotho has been freely expressed,” he told reporters Sunday.

Banda stepped down last year after losing Zambia’s presidential election, and said he expected Mosisili to do the same if he loses.

“The mission encourages all parties to accept the results and to resort to appropriate channels to resolve disputes.”

Voters are choosing lawmakers to represent 80 constituencies. Another 40 seats in parliament will be awarded under a proportional vote system.

Signature : Griffin Shea MASERU (AFP)

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