THERE is still no clear decision on whether or not the country will hold by-elections in five constituencies.
A Wednesday meeting of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and various political parties in Maseru still failed to come up with a position on the issue.
Giving an update on the Wednesday meeting, Justice and Law Minister, Lekhetho Rakuoane, himself the leader of the Popular Front for Democracy (PFD), said “although the IEC wants to conduct the by-elections, there is no money”.
“We are just hoping for a miracle from the Finance Minister,” Adv Rakuoane said in an interview with the Sunday Express.
All Basotho Convention (ABC) spokesperson, Montoeli Masoetsa, said, although there was uncertainty over the by-elections, his party wanted them to gauge their strength in the wake of the April 2019 split in the party.
“There is still so much uncertainty around the by-elections but we want them because they will help us gauge ourselves and give us a picture of how strong the party still is. We want the elections high and low,” Mr Masoetsa said.
The ABC split after its former deputy leader, Nqosa Mahao, jumped ship, citing an alleged plot to oust him from then party. He accused Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro, ABC leader Thomas Thabane and secretary general, Lebohang Hlaele, of instigating the plot to oust him. Prof Mahao was followed out of the ABC by Mokhotlong legislator, Tefo Mapesela, who formed the Basotho Patriotic Party (BPP). ABC officials who spoke to this publication on condition of anonymity said these high-profile departures have sparked fears that the party could lose the by-elections if they are held.
The by-elections are long overdue in ‘Makhoroana, ‘Maliepetsane, Mohale’s Hoek, Kolo and Qacha’s Nek. The five constituencies have been without representation following the deaths of their legislators between 2019 and 2021.
Three of the deceased legislators, Lefu Hlomelang (‘Makhoroana), Michael Molefe (‘Maliepetsane) and Sentje Lebona (Mohale’s Hoek) were all from ABC.
The late Kolo constituency MP, Putsoane Leeto, was a member of DC. The Qacha’s Nek vacancy arose after the former incumbent, Pontšo Sekatle, stepped down to become Lesotho’s ambassador to Belgium and the European Union in February this year.
Although they are constitutionally due within 90 days of a vacancy, uncertainty surrounds the holding of the by-elections.
Last month, the Ministry of Finance ruled out funding the polls and instead ordered the IEC to start preparing for the 2022 general elections. Ministry officials said there were no funds to bankroll by-elections in the five constituencies and local government polls in some district councils.
Finance Minister Thabo Sophonea, himself an ABC legislator for the Thaba-Bosiu constituency, subsequently weighed in on the issue, saying the IEC should forget about receiving any funds from treasury as it had never requested anything to conduct the polls.
“Just because it is a legal exercise does not mean we must just cut budget for other institutions to accommodate this one,” Mr Sophonea said in an interview with this publication.
“IEC must look for money within their own budget heads, it must forego other things in order for them to hold these elections, not for the Ministry of Finance to rescue them.
“We don’t have an extra budget; in fact we have a budget shortfall. In as much as it is a must to hold elections, where should we get the money when it is not budgeted for it? Does it mean they (IEC) must not budget for the upcoming general elections and only write a letter requesting money simply because it is constitutionally binding to hold elections?
“Is that fair to expect finance to have money put aside just in case institutions need money for legally binding activities? It is not the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance to second guess institutions, they must think for themselves and bring budget proposals to us,” Mr Sophonea said.
IEC public relations manager, Tuoe Hantši, subsequently said they were shocked that the Ministry of Finance’s Budget Controller, Maleshoane Lekomola-Danziger, had written to them purporting to cancel the by-elections on the grounds that that was no money to fund them. He said such decisions could only be made by cabinet and not civil servants like Ms Lekomola-Danziger.
“Truly speaking, that shocked us but there are ongoing talks between the government and the IEC. It is expected that the Minister of Finance (Thabo Sophonea) will meet the IEC to look into this matter before it is taken to cabinet.
“The normal practice has always been that government would finance by-elections from the contingency fund. By-elections are emergencies caused by deaths or resignations. We have always held by-elections that were not budgeted for and the money would be drawn from the contingency budget. Even now, we thought we would be given money from the contingency fund. The commission will talk to government authorities and a decision will be made by the cabinet as has always been the case,” Mr Hantši said last month.
He said the National Assembly Electoral Act of 2011 clearly states that the IEC must conduct by-elections to fill any vacancies provided they arise at least six months before general elections are held.
Last week, Mr Hantši said they were still awaiting communication from the government on the fate of the by-elections.
“The IEC is not aware of the cancellation of by-elections, we are still expecting communication from the government on the issue” Mr Hantši said.
His sentiments were echoed by IEC chairperson, Mphasa Mokhochane, who said they were still waiting for government communication on the fate of the by-elections.