Freedom in the World
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In August 2011, unions, political groups, and civil society organizations staged a series of large demonstrations to protest a variety of economic and governance issues. The ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy dominated local elections held in October and December.
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 violent 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. Following an evaluation of the country’s electoral process, an Interim Political Authority decided that future elections would be supervised by an independent commission and 40 proportionally determined seats would be added to the National Assembly. In the 2002 elections, the LCD captured 77 constituency seats, while the opposition Basotho National Party (BNP) won 21 of the new proportional-representation seats.
In late 2006, Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili called snap elections after 18 members of the LCD joined a new opposition party, the All Basotho Congress (ABC). In the February 2007 voting, the LCD won 61 seats, while the ABC captured 17. Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) allocated 21 of the 40 proportional-representation seats to the LCD-allied National Independent Party (NIP) and 10 to the ABC’s ally, the Lesotho Workers’ Party (LWP). Six other parties were also awarded seats. The elections were declared free and fair by domestic and international observers.
Opposition parties disputed the allocations, accusing the government of poll-rigging and gerrymandering, and called a general strike. The strike was halted after the SADC agreed to mediate, but the talks failed to formally resolve the dispute. In 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, holding several workers hostage until the protest was broken up by police. In 2009, gunmen opened fire on Prime Minister Mosisili’s house, but he escaped unharmed. Government officials and some journalists linked the assassination attempt to the ongoing election dispute, calling it a failed coup. The same year, the head SADC mediator, former Botswana president Sir Ketumile Masire, ended his mission in Lesotho, accusing the government of avoiding direct talks with the opposition. The Christian Council of Lesotho took over SADC’s facilitation of the dialogue, but the disputes remained unresolved at the end of 2011. In local elections held in October and December 2011, the LCD captured 79 of 87 contested councils.
In May 2011, the LCD and ABC youth leagues joined factory and taxi workers to stage a protest in Maseru over economic grievances, including opposition to a government job freeze. After the prime minister rejected the protestors’ demands, unions, opposition parties, business organizations, and civil society groups organized a series of much larger demonstrations in August to protest issues including unemployment and corruption. Factory and taxi workers organized a 3-day work stay-away to coincide with the demonstrations.
Drought has plagued the country since 2001, leading to food shortages and the dependence of some 450,000 people on food aid. Lesotho suffers an adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of approximately 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. Roughly 25 percent of the country’s infected citizens receive antiretroviral treatment.
Lesotho is an electoral democracy. King Letsie III serves as ceremonial head of state. The lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, is comprised of 120 seats; 80 seats are filled through first past-the-post constituency votes and 40 through proportional representation. Members serve five-year terms, and the leader of the majority party becomes the prime minister. 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.
While the government has aggressively prosecuted cases of graft, political corruption remains a problem. A 2010 report by the African Peer Review Mechanism stated that corruption was rife in all sectors of government and public services, and that cronyism was prevalent in state bidding procedures. In December 2011, the Public Accounts Committee reported a significant increase in corruption and theft by civil servants, most of which go unprosecuted. Lesotho was ranked 77 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedoms of speech and the press are generally respected. Independent newspapers and radio stations routinely criticize the government. However, state-owned print and broadcast media tend to reflect the views of the ruling party, and the state controls the country’s largest radio station and its only television station. Critical media outlets and journalists face severe libel and defamation penalties, and reporters are occasionally harassed, threatened, and attacked. In March 2011, the private radio station Harvest FM was served with a M1million ($145k) defamation suit by Assistant Police Commissioner Thakane Theko over a 2010 story alleging she engaged in accepting bribes and other corrupt activities. In September, High Court Judge 'Maseforo Mahase also initiated an M8 million ($1.1 million) defamation lawsuit against Harvest FM over comments on a talk show accusing him of corruption. A proposed media reform bill which would create a public-service broadcaster, eliminate repressive national security statutes, and place the burden of proof on the plaintiff in cases involving slander and libel, has been under review for 13 years. 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, though demonstrations are sometimes broken up violently. According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa-Lesotho, several people were shot during the August 2011 protests when police opened fire on demonstrators. In 2010, an LCD-proposed bill requiring prior authorization from government officials to hold public meetings passed through the law and public safety committee in Parliament. Following protests from the opposition and civic groups, 21 amendments were made to the bill before it became law, including less onerous requirements for gatherings in rural areas and more discretion for judges in fining violators. 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 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, severely overcrowded, and lack essential health services; instances of torture and use of excessive force have been reported. An independent ombudsman’s office is tasked with protecting citizens’ rights, but its enforcement powers are weak.
Tensions between the Basotho and the small Chinese business community have led to minor incidents of violence in recent years.
The constitution bars gender-based discrimination, but customary practice and law still restrict women’s rights in the areas of 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. Women are prevalent in senior political and economic positions in Lesotho: about one in five government ministers are women, and women make up some 52 percent of national legislators and senior managers. In 2011, Lesotho ranked 8th in the World Economic Forum Global Gender gap ranking.