Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The political rights rating improved from 3 to 2 and its status improved from Partly Free to Free, due to free and fair parliamentary elections that resulted in the successful transition of power to the opposition party.
Despite another bout of pre-electoral violence and a deeply divided result, the May 2012 parliamentary elections were free and fair and resulted in a peaceful transfer of power. Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili—whose Democratic Congress won the most votes but was unable to form a government—resigned, and All Basotho Congress leader Tom Thabane became prime minister in June.
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 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, it was decided that an independent commission would supervise future elections, and 40 proportionally determined seats would be added to the National Assembly. The LCD captured the most seats in the 2002 legislative elections.
In 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 2007 polls, the LCD won 61 seats, while the ABC captured 17. Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission allocated 21 of the 40 proportional-representation seats to the LCD-allied National Independent Party and 10 to the ABC’s ally, the Lesotho Workers’ Party. Six other parties were also awarded seats.
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 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 run-up to the May 2012 parliamentary elections was marked by political volatility and violence. In February, Mosisili left the LCD to form a new party, the Democratic Congress (DC), along with 45 of the LCD’s members of Parliament. Mosisili’s move was driven by a power struggle with LCD secretary general Mothetjoa Metsing. Mosisili remained prime minister, and the DC became the new ruling party. In April, alleged LCD supporters attacked attendees of a DC rally, injuring at least ten, while less high profile instances of violence and intimidation across the party spectrum were reported throughout the campaign.
The actual polling in May was declared free and fair by a range of international and domestic observers. While the DC won 48 seats in the 120-seat National Assembly, Mosisili was unable to form a government. A few days later, ABC leader Tom Thabane—whose party won 30 seats—announced a 65-seat coalition with the LCD, which had captured 26 seats, and two smaller parties, the Popular Front for Democracy and the Marematlou Freedom Party. Despite fears that the results would be contested and that Mosisili and his supporters would refuse to hand over power, Thabane peacefully took over as prime minister later that month.
Drought has plagued the country for over a decade, leading to food shortages and the dependence of some 450,000 people on food aid. Meanwhile, a season of heavy rains in 2011 severely curtailed maize production in 2011 and exacerbated shortages in 2012. 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. Fifteen parties and several independent candidates contested the 2012 elections.
While the government has aggressively prosecuted cases of graft, political corruption remains a problem. According to the African Peer Review Mechanism, corruption is rife in all sectors of government and public services, and cronyism is prevalent in state bidding procedures. In June 2012, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences—the government’s anticorruption watchdog—was made an autonomous body with full control over its budget. Also in June, Thabane announced that all government officials must declare their financial interests as a condition of office, though implementation had not begun by year’s end. Lesotho was ranked 64 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 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. Media coverage of the May 2012 election was more professional and expansive than during previous elections. Nevertheless, the state-run Lesotho Broadcasting Service allocated more radio and television airtime to the DC party, while private broadcast coverage favored opposition parties.
The government does not restrict internet access, though access is restricted by socio-economic constraints.
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. 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 growing 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. Women are prevalent in senior political and economic positions in Lesotho: women comprise about 26 percent of national legislators and over 50 percent of senior managers. Domestic violence is reportedly widespread.