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Political debate – Dialogue towards consensus

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Malefetsane Nkhahle is one of the three commissioners leading the Independent Electoral Commission of Lesotho. He spoke to Southworld in his Maseru office.

How do you promote the democratic process in Lesotho?

As many other countries that consider themselves to be democratic, we have an elected government. Our principal responsibility is to deliver free and fair elections, according to widely accepted principles of impartiality of the commission. We are empowered to run elections and referendums, even though we never had one. The commission if formed by three commissioners. We have a secretary, and there are local officers and staff. Our constituency is the whole country and we have offices throughout the nation. Lesotho adopted a mixed system: some parliamentarians are elected following the first to pass the post system, others are elected according to representation. The parliament is of 120 members. The Senate is constituted by 22 principal chiefs and 11 are chosen by the Prime Minister who selects some people to serve the nation in that capacity. It is a big parliament for a small country. There are historical reasons for that. We reached these structures after a national dialogue that followed a troublesome period in 1998.

African elections often capture the headlines because of ethnic tensions, rigging …

We really have not had those negative experiences. Our process has been rigorous. In 1998 we had some troubles; the political infight reached the streets with rioting, burning of businesses, etc. Yet, we never saw a widespread rigging of elections. I think that our system is good because it allows for issues to be discussed as they arise. We have committees to discuss about issues of the law, representation, communication. All are represented in these committees. These committees provided the forum and connection with all the stakeholders.

Is there a consensus about your work?

There is consensus because of the ongoing dialogue. There are issues, but not contentious. For instance, in the past months the stakeholders expressed the wish to monitor our work, so we established a monitor committee. This is not a legal figure; there is no base in law. It is a temporary structure to build confidence, to help support a perception of our work. There is general consensus our work is going on well. The monitoring team reports every fortnight about our work.

We also had a very long work to draft a new electoral law. The old law was felt inadequate. The new legislation was designed in dialogue between all the parties. We still have work to do. Our Commission, for instance, was established by a constitutional amendment, but there is no proper legislation. There is now the feeling that to really give independence to our work we need proper legislation. In fact, now we really work as a government department, our salaries are paid by the treasury. We have a car fleet pay by the government. We do need to entrench our independence with a specific law. We have prepared a draft, we will have to bring all parties to agree on the law and the way to finance our work.

The institution of the king seems to be popular. Do you feel that the office of the king is finding its way for the modern Lesotho?

I think the monarchy is still very important in this country. This is something ingrained in our culture. Along with the monarchy is the system of chieftaincy. The latter is being overtaken by the system of modern government. Councillors act in concert with traditional rulers, the chiefs. But conflicts are never too far. At practical level, people still look at the chief to provide the services they require. This reality clashes with the idea of an elected person to rule locally. It is going to take some time. Also in regards of the monarchy we have some problems. The office of the monarchy does not have all power clearly spelled out. There are some grey areas, like residual powers. The king exercises certain powers by virtue of being king, but there are some powers that are not stated, neither that he can or cannot do. The king has kept very much out of politics and has exercised his role as figurehead in line with the constitution.

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