Lesotho | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Lesotho's political rights rating improved from 4 to 2, its civil liberties rating improved from 4 to 3, and its status changed from Partly Free to Free, following the holding of free and fair parliamentary elections which were not marred by violence, and a general improvement in the country's civil liberties.


Lesotho held long-awaited parliamentary elections in May. International observers declared the vote to be free and fair, but Lesotho's main opposition parties objected to the results, which gave the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) 77 of 78 constituency seats. The circumstances were similar to the dispute that erupted following the 1998 parliamentary poll, which the 2002 election was organized to replace. This time, however, the objection did not dissolve into violence. The opposition Basotho National Party won 21 of the 40 seats chosen by proportional representation.

Lesotho's status as a British protectorate saved it from incorporation into South Africa. King Moshoeshoe II reigned from independence in 1966 until the installation of his son as King Letsie III in a 1990 military coup. Democratic elections in 1993 did not lead to stability. After violent military infighting, assassinations, and a suspension of constitutional rule in 1994, King Letsie III abdicated to allow his father's reinstatement. He resumed the throne following the accidental death of his father in January 1996.

Troops from South Africa and Botswana were sent to this mountain kingdom at the request of Prime Minster Pakalitha Mosisili, under the mandate of the 14-country Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), in 1998 to quell army-backed violence and a potential overthrow of the government. The violence was touched off by the results of National Assembly elections. Although international observers described the voting as free and fair, the appearance of irregularities and the absence of opposition voices in government prompted demonstrators to reject the results that gave the ruling LCD 79 of 80 National Assembly seats. At least 100 people were reportedly killed before order was restored. An agreement, drafted by the Commonwealth in 1998, allowed the elected, but highly unpopular, government to retain power, but stipulated that new elections be supervised by an independent election commission.

Entirely surrounded by South Africa, Lesotho is highly dependent on its powerful neighbor. Its economy is sustained by remittances from its many citizens who work in South African mines. Retrenchments at the mines, however, has contributed to high unemployment in Lesotho. The kingdom in 2002 was also struggling with hunger following poor harvests.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The people of Lesotho are guaranteed the right to change their leaders through free and fair elections. The 2002 legislative election was marked by a turnout of 68 percent. The ruling LCD captured a total of 55 percent of votes cast, winning 77 of 78 constituency seats. The Lesotho People's Congress (LPC) won 1 seat. There are 80 constituency seats, but elections in 2 constituencies failed. The Basotho National Party won 21 of the 40 seats chosen by proportional representation, while the National Independent Party won 5 and the LPC won 4. Smaller parties won the remainder.

The new "mixed member" voting system expanded the number of National Assembly seats by 40, to 120. The additional seats were chosen by proportional representation, while the others continued to be chosen by the first-past-the-post system of awarding seats to whoever gets the most votes. The new system was developed by the electoral commission and the Interim Political Authority, which were set up following the 1998 violence.

The Senate, the upper house of the bicameral legislature, includes royal appointees and Lesotho's 22 principal traditional chiefs, who still wield considerable authority in rural areas. Any elected government's exercise of its constitutional authority remains limited by the autonomy of the military, the royal family, and traditional clan structures.

Courts are nominally independent, but higher courts are especially subject to outside influence. The large case backlog often leads to lengthy delays in trials. Mistreatment of civilians by security forces reportedly continues. Several nongovernmental organizations operate openly. Prison conditions are poor, but not life threatening.

The government generally respects freedom of speech and the press, but journalists have suffered occasional harassment or attack. There are several independent newspapers that routinely criticize the government. There are four private radio stations, and extensive South African radio and television broadcasts reach Lesotho.

Freedom of religion in the predominantly Christian country is generally respected. The constitution bars gender-based discrimination, but customary practice and law still restrict women's rights in several areas, including property rights and inheritance. A woman is considered a legal minor while her husband is alive. Domestic violence is reportedly widespread but is becoming increasingly socially unacceptable. Women's rights organizations have highlighted the importance of women's participation in the democratic process as part of a broader effort to educate women about their rights under customary and common law.

Freedom of assembly is generally respected, and labor rights are constitutionally guaranteed. However, the labor and trade union movement is weak and fragmented. Approximately 10 percent of the country's labor force is unionized. Of the remainder, most are engaged in subsistence agriculture or employment in South African mines. Although collective bargaining rights and the right to strike are recognized by law, they are sometimes denied by government negotiators.