Lesotho | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2009

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The opposition All Basotho Convention (ABC) party in 2008 continued to dispute the results of the 2007 snap elections, which were won by the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) party. Mediation by the Southern African Development Community continued at year’s end, but the talks appeared to have reached an impasse. Separately, press freedom continued to suffer during the year.

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 after 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 and 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—defected to join a new opposition party, the All Basotho Congress (ABC). The February 2007 polls, originally set for May, left a shortened, 90-day timetable that resulted in hasty preparations by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Nevertheless, the 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. The strike was halted after the SADC agreed to mediate, but the talks had failed to resolve the dispute by the end of 2008. In July 2008, 43 by-elections were held, the results of which were also contested by the opposition. ABC supporters protested outside the office of the IEC and held some workers hostage until the protest was broken up by police.

Drought has plagued the country since 2001, leading to a critical food shortage and a UN aid effort in 2007. Lesotho is also scarred by an adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of over 23 percent, one of the world’s highest. The government announced in 2005 that it would offer free HIV testing to all citizens, the first such program in the world.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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. Members serve five-year terms, and the leader of the majority party becomes prime minister. Snap elections held in 2007 resulted in a landslide victory for the ruling LCD and its ally, the NIP. Opposition parties—including the ABC, LWP, and BNP—continue to contest the results, accusing the government of poll rigging, gerrymandering, and unfairly allocating seats. In November 2008, the government announced a new digital voter-registration system designed to curtail fraud.

The Senate, the upper house of Parliament, consists of Lesotho’s 22 traditional principal chiefs, who wield considerable authority in rural areas, and 11 other members appointed on the advice of the prime minister.

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 bribery and other crimes associated with the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), a multibillion-dollar dam and watershed project. Lesotho was ranked 92 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The government generally respects freedom of speech and the press, though press freedom has declined in recent years. Independent newspapers and radio stations routinely criticize the government, while state-owned print and broadcast media tend to reflect the views of the ruling party. In May 2008, the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA) increased the cost of broadcasting licenses sevenfold, from $400 to $3,000, drawing objections from press freedom advocates. Among other problems, media criticism of the government can result in heavy libel penalties, the government has been accused of withdrawing advertisements from critical outlets, and reporters are occasionally harassed or attacked. Radio journalists at Harvest FM and People’s Choice FM were threatened and accused of “causing confusion” ahead of the 2007 elections. In July 2008, Harvest FM was suspended for three months for failing to cooperate with the LCA. Harvest host Thabo Thakalekoala was sentenced in October to two years in prison or a small fine, having been arrested for sedition in 2007 after reading an antigovernment letter on the air; he 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 a weeklong curfew stemming from political violence in June 2007. 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. An independent ombudsman’s office is tasked with protecting citizens’ rights.

Tensions between Basotho and the small Chinese business community have led to minor incidents 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 2005 constitutional amendment reserves a third of the seats in municipal councilsfor women.