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Is the electoral playing field level?

FOLLOWING dissolution of Parliament and the subsequent announcement of May 26 as election day, the next logical question is: to what extent are Basotho ready and the play field level for free, credible and fair elections?
In light of the political tension in the past few weeks and considering the post-2007 general election discontent, this question is extremely important.
Will the post-2007 political dialogue originally brokered by Sadc and sustained by Lesotho civil society help Lesotho to have a free and fair election on May 26?
Whether an election becomes free, credible and fair is not a matter of pronunciation by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) nor is it a determination of government or the winning party.
It is a shared appreciation of the transparency, accessibility and constitutionality of the process by contesting political parties and the general populace that makes an election result legitimate.
The guidelines that Lesotho subscribes to include the African Union Declaration on Democracy, Elections and Governance, Sadc Principles and Guidelines on Democratic Elections and Principles of Elections Management, Monitoring and Observation of Electoral Commissions Forum and Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, among others.
These commitments have been in place before 2007 with the exception of the AU declaration.
The new National Assembly Electoral Act, which is a result of dialogue, seems to have attempted to respond to a number of 2007 outstanding issues.
Yet even before briefly analysing this law it is important for us to question the IEC’s preparedness.
In the recent local government elections, IEC was under the spotlight for poor registration due to the unreliable machines it was using.
This nearly caused a boycott by the opposition parties.
However this time the IEC seems to have improved drastically on registration.
The machinery and crowd pulling activities aimed at promoting registration have been mounted in partnership with other sectors such as the media, political parties and consultants.
Pursuant to the Electoral Law, IEC has established a track-two conflict management strategy.
Each of the 10 districts will have a conciliator and the district conflict management team chaired by the Lesotho Council of NGOs and made up of political parties, the church and other stakeholders.
Conciliators who are already undergoing conflict management training shall use the “interest-based approach” to conflict handling rather than the “power and rights-based approach” to address disagreements through dialogue.
Matters that cannot be resolved by the conciliators and the district conflict management committees shall be referred to IEC.
Before referring the matter to the Tribunal which has court features in terms of conduct and law orientation, IEC will refer it to the conflict management panel.
This is a higher structure which is aimed at using dialogue to resolve election disputes particularly over the code of conduct.
This initiative has the potential of deterring latent conflict from escalating into a crisis.
This is over and above the existing committee system where IEC consults on a regular basis with political parties on a wide range of issues: law, logistics, data, etc.
For electoral education IEC will continue to cooperate with civil society organisations.
Basotho need education on the changes to the electoral model, motivation to register and vote in large numbers and remain vigilant on governance issues even after elections.
The discontent over unscrupulous pre-election alliances which led to the questioned legitimacy of allocation of seats has been addressed in the new law.
The new law compels all parties willing to contest elections in an alliance to declare and register it with IEC.
This therefore means that for the purposes of allocation they will be treated as an entity.
The new law further gives the High Court jurisdiction over determination of appropriateness of allocation of seats and empowers an elector, political party, IEC and the attorney general to petition the court to consider re-allocation of seats, both constituency and PR, on the grounds which may be convincing to the court.
Although these changes addressed the post-2007 issues it may not be appropriate to conclude on their basis that post-2012 elections will be tranquil.
It would only be so if the same 2007 disagreements were to be issues of contention this time around.
However it looks like 2012 has its own issues different from 2007.
IEC preparedness and the changed law would not supersede political forces.
The question is whether the political climate for 2012 shall be contained by the preparations made by IEC and the new law.
Without engagement of any political forecasting tools one foresees a situation after elections where no single party may have outright majority to form government.
If that occurs, then a coalition government will be possible.

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