The people of Lesotho voted in a snap election for the Lower House of Parliament on February 28, 2015, two years ahead of schedule.
This early election was promoted as a solution to the political crisis triggered earlier in 2014. In June, Prime Minister Tom Thabane of the All Basotho Convention (ABC) suspended the parliament for 10 months in an effort to stave off a no-confidence motion initiated by the Deputy Minister Mothetjoa Metsing of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LDC). In August, Prime Minister Thabane accused the army of staging a coup to topple him and was forced to leave the country and flee to South Africa. The conflict brought to the surface underlying tensions within what is viewed as a politicized and partisan security apparatus with “the police force mostly loyal to Thabane, the army mostly loyal to the Deputy Prime Minister, Mothetjoa Metsing.” The rapidly deteriorating security situation necessitated intervention from regional bodies for the restoration of normalcy and stability on the road to the election.
With regards to the political fundamentals of the country, the prime minister serves as the head of government while the king is the head of state. The leader of the party or the coalition of parties who secures the majority of parliamentary seats becomes prime minister while the monarchy is hereditary and ceremonial with the king serving as a “living symbol of national unity.”
The Parliament is Bicameral consisting of an Upper House (Senate) and a Lower House (Assembly). Out of the 33 Senators, “22 are principal chiefs and 11 members are appointed by the ruling party.” 120 members comprise the Assembly and serve 5-year terms. The electoral system is Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) with 80 members elected in single-member constituencies under first-past-the-post (FPTP) and the remaining 40 in a nationwide constituency under party list proportional representation (PR).
Following the 2012 election, Tom Thabane of the All Basotho Convention (ABC) became prime minister forming a coalition government. Given the nature of the electoral system, political alliances are required to cross the 60-seat threshold for a parliamentary majority. Witnessing the collapse of the coalition between Thabane (ABC) and Metsing [LCD] and the ensuing political crisis, and amid the formation of new alliances ahead of the 2015 poll, it is worth paying attention to whether these are forged on the basis of political programmes rather than on political opportunism. The latter will prove critical for the long-term stability and peace in the country.
Women’s Political Participation
In the aftermath of the 2012 polls, there were 32 women in the 120-seat National Assembly, amounting to a 26.7% representation rate. Based on the world classification of women in national legislatures, Lesotho ranked 43d, a top-tier performance among African countries.
As is the case in other places where women have made strides in political institutions, affirmative action provisions underpin that progress. According to the Quota Project at the national assembly level, there are legislated 50% quotas for the 40 PR seats, following a so-called zipper or zebra-system with male and female candidate alternating throughout the lists, while “30% of the total number of seats in municipal, urban and community councils are reserved for women and are distribute proportionally among the parties.” These measures contributed to the very important gains, especially at the local level, where the percentage of women elected in the local elections of 2011 ranges from 51 to 58%, the highest in the region.
However, it is worth noting that it is difficult to extrapolate progress on gender issues in the country based on women’s advancements in electoral politics. Lesotho continues to have one of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the region, where “86% women experienced violence in their lifetime.” Moreover, there is widespread discrimination enshrined into law that may restrict women’s economic participation: “while their husbands are alive, women married under customary law have the status of minors in civil courts and may not enter into binding contracts.”
Furthermore, we need to keep in mind that women live and operate in a patriarchal environment, where politics, and more specifically elite politics, are considered a masculine prerogative; therefore, it is not surprising that no major party in the election was led by a woman. Media might play a negative role in the efforts of women in the country to establish leadership credentials. Media in Lesotho quote women less frequently than men, perhaps eroding their authority, and when they report on women they associate them with ‘soft’ policy areas such as religion and health care, and that might be detrimental since high executive office is most often associated with ‘hard’ policy areas such as the economy, security, and foreign policy.
The language of the Constitution is gendered, and that might send strong symbolic messages construing men as the default sex of citizenship. According to Article 4(1) “every person in Lesotho is entitled, whatever his race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status to fundamental human rights and freedoms” [emphasis added].
Voter turnout was 46.6%, lower than the 50% recorded in 2012.
The international community praised the “peaceful conduct” of the election and regional observers praised the Independent Electoral Commission of Lesotho for being able “to professionally organize, conduct and deliver credible elections at short notice.”
The final results yielded a hung parliament. The incumbent All Basotho Convention of Prime Minister Thabane finished second with 46 seats, while the opposition Democratic Congress (DC) emerged on top with 47 seats and formed a coalition with other opposition parties; therefore, the leader of DC, Pakalitha Mosisili will become Prime Minister.
While the final number of women who gained a parliamentary seat has yet to be announced, women do have a reason to celebrate: Ntlhoi Motsamai, a veteran politician was elected as Speaker of the Parliament. This is not the first time a woman will hold the post in Lesotho, since Motsamai herself was elected as a speaker in 1999 and re-elected in 2002. Motsamai is a trailblazer for women in elite politics in Lesotho, from the first time she was elected, “both the National Assembly and the public doubted whether a woman, and the youngest speaker in Africa, would ably carry out the responsibilities of such an important post. She has not only achieved this, but has also made it her business to ensure that women in parliament have a voice.”
While the legislated “zebra” quotas for the 40 seats allocated under proportional representation guarantee a minimum of female representation, more efforts might be necessary, especially at the 80 single-member constituencies, to boost the number of women in parliament. According to data from the Independent Electoral Commission, out of the 1116 candidates running for the 80 constituency seats, 779 (69.8%) were men and 337 (30.2%) women. More information about the gender make-up of the candidates of each party might give us a more complete picture about the gendered nature of political competition in Lesotho. For example, it might be helpful to learn whether the major political parties recruited women candidates to contest safe seats, ‘battleground’ districts or nominated them as sacrificial lambs in unelectable districts. The available data for the winner of the election, the Democratic Congress, are somewhat disappointing. DC nominated only 12 (15%) women and 68 men (85%) for the constituency districts. If the same trend applies to the other major parties, then more affirmative action or public campaigns to recruit and train women to contest constituency seats might be necessary.
Lastly, given the documented record of media that we discussed earlier to under-report and stereotype women, gender-sensitive training might be particularly beneficial to journalists who are committed to reporting in a gender-aware fashion. For women candidates, the development of professional networks that will build-capacity and improve access to gendered media institutions might also help to challenge stereotyping and equalize media outcomes.
Women’s Representation Statistics
Women’s Political Representation
As of 2012
As of 2015
Female Members of Parliament