Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Lesotho received a downward trend arrow due to harassment of the media in the run-up to snap elections and security forces’ suppression of demonstrations during a postelection curfew.
The ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) party handily won February 2007 snap elections, which had been called after 18 LCD lawmakers defected to the newly formed All Basotho Convention (ABC) party. Opposition parties challenged the results and called a general strike in March; the dispute was being mediated by the Southern African Development Community at year’s end. In June, a series of attacks on political figures led to the imposition of a week-long curfew.
Lesotho gained independence from Britain in 1966, and the following 30 years featured a number of military coups, annulled elections, and suspensions of constitutional rule. Parliamentary elections in 1998, although judged free and fair by international observers, set off protests as the results gave the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) party 79 out of 80 constituency seats with just 60.5 percent of the vote. Troops from South Africa and Botswana—under the mandate of the 14-country Southern African Development Community (SADC)—were summoned to restore order, and an agreement that year stipulated that future elections must be supervised by an independent commission and include 40 additional, proportionally determined seats in the National Assembly. In the 2002 elections, the LCD captured 57.7 percent of the vote, winning 77 of 80 constituency seats, while the opposition Basotho National Party (BNP) won 21 of the new proportional-representation seats.
Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili called snap elections in late 2006 after 18 members of the LCD—led by former cabinet minister Tom Thabane—crossed the floor to join a new opposition party, the All Basotho Congress (ABC); the defections threatened the LCD’s majority. The polls had originally been scheduled for May 2007, and the shortened, 90-day timetable resulted in hasty preparations by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), an inadequate voter-information campaign, and the use of inaccurate voting rolls. Nevertheless, the February elections were declared free and fair by domestic and international observers. According to the IEC, the LCD won 61 of the 80 constituency seats, with the ABC capturing 17. The commission allocated 21 of the 40 proportional-representation seats to the LCD-allied National Independent Party (NIP) and 10 to the Lesotho Workers Party (LWP), the ABC’s ally. Six other parties were also awarded seats.
Opposition parties—including the ABC/LWP and the BNP, which lost 18 seats—disputed the allocations and called a general strike in March. The strike was halted after the SADC agreed to mediate the dispute, and talks were ongoing at year’s end. In June, the homes of three cabinet ministers and ABC leader Thabane were attacked, prompting the government to impose a week-long curfew.
Drought has plagued the country since 2001. In 2007, drought conditions were severe; production of maize, the staple food source, dropped by over 50 percent, and prices have doubled since 2006. After Mosisili declared a state of emergency in July, the United Nations launched a $19 million aid effort, stating that over 500,000 Lesotho residents would require food aid.
Lesotho is scarred by an adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of over 23 percent, one of the world’s highest. In 2005, the government announced a plan to offer free HIV testing to all citizens, the first such program in the world. In April 2007, the government launched a four-year plan to reduce HIV infections among children.
Lesotho is an electoral democracy. King Letsie III serves as ceremonial head of state. Under a system introduced in 2002, 80 of the 120 seats in the lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, are filled by first-past-the-post constituency votes, and 40 are filled by proportional representation. The leader of the majority party becomes prime minister. Snap elections held in February 2007 resulted in a landslide victory for the ruling LCD and its NIP allies, though opposition parties including the ABC, LWP, and BNP contested the results.
The Senate, the upper house of Parliament, consists of 11 royal appointees and Lesotho’s 22 traditional principal chiefs, who wield considerable authority in rural areas.
The government has aggressively prosecuted corruption cases. In recent years, over a dozen officials and international construction firms have been investigated—and a number of both convicted—for practices associated with the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), a multibillion-dollar dam and watershed project. The LHWP’s former chief executive was sentenced in 2002 to 15 years in prison for bribery. In 2006, two officials were accused of taking LHWP-related bribes from the German engineering consultancy Lahmeyer International. Lesotho was ranked 84 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and the press, though press freedom declined in 2007. Independent newspapers and radio stations operate freely and routinely criticize the government, while state-owned print and broadcast media tend to reflect the views of the ruling party. Media criticism of the government can draw extremely high libel penalties, and reporters are occasionally harassed or attacked. Journalists at Harvest FM and People’s Choice FM were threatened and accused of “causing confusion” in the run-up to the February 2007 elections. Harvest FM has reportedly been targeted by the government as the “headquarters” of the opposition ABC. Host Adam Lekhoaba was deported to South Africa after the polls for political reasons, though he was allowed to return later in the year. In June, journalist Thabo Thakalekoala was arrested for treason after reading a letter attacking the prime minister on Harvest FM; the host claimed he was forced to read the letter after receiving death threats. The government does not restrict internet access.
Freedom of religion in this predominantly Christian country is widely observed. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected. Several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate openly. However, assembly rights were suspended during the June 2007 curfew, which lasted a week and featured military deployments and roadblocks in Maseru. While labor rights are constitutionally guaranteed, the union movement is weak and fragmented, and many employers in the textile sector do not allow union activity.
Courts are nominally independent, but higher courts are especially subject to outside influence. The large backlog of cases often leads to trial delays and lengthy pretrial detention. Mistreatment of civilians by security forces reportedly continues. Prisons are dilapidated and severely overcrowded, and lack essential health services; instances of torture and excessive force have been reported. Citizens are protected against government infringements on their rights by an independent ombudsman’s office.
Tensions between Basotho and the small Chinese business community have led to minor instances of violence.
The constitution bars gender-based discrimination, but customary practice and law still restrict women’s rights in areas including property and inheritance. 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. Domestic violence is reportedly widespread, but is becoming less socially acceptable. In 2006, the government announced plans to improve medical care for victims of rape. A constitutional amendment reserves a third of the total seats in municipal councils elected in 2005 for women.