It’s getting cold and dry here as our third Lesotho winter is setting in, but this morning there’s a distinct energy in the air: loud beats are playing from people’s solar charged stereos, pick-up trucks carry people with bullhorns up and down the road, crowds of our neighbors flock to the local primary school to cast their vote. It’s national Election Day and there’s a lot at stake for the office of Prime Minister.
I’m not sure whether the political hodgepodge is more like Game of Thrones or The Young and the Restless, but election drama and allegiances are alive and well. And for good reason—the past year has had more than its share of fishy political maneuvers and party splits giving Basotho plenty to disagree about.
Much of the controversy surrounds the current Prime Minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, who has been in power for 15 years but rather suddenly become a hotly debated leader. A few months ago he was almost impeached by a vote of no-confidence called by his own party after being accused of dismissing several government ministers with no apparent cause (aka thinning out his opponents). A bit shaken-up but still in power, he broke ties with his accusers and declared a brand new party overnight, taking with him over half the Members of Parliament (MPs). This new party, called Democratic Congress (DC), wields a huge amount of political power and name recognition—which can translate into lots of votes from rural areas or the politically uninformed. But it has also created an ever-growing backlash against what some Basotho see as outright and illegal manipulation connected with Mr. Mosisili.
With the many parties involved, the ballot today must look like a giant bowl of alphabet soup: BNP, LCD, BCP, ABC, DC, and about 8 more. Each has their own colors, logos, songs, dances, and no joke, secret hand signals. Most of these take a backseat to the three main parties; DC and Mr. Mosisili will face their main opposition from the party that he renounced earlier, Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) and All Basotho Congress (ABC), each led by other out-spoken MPs. The puzzling thing is, all these different names offer hardly any difference in policies or ideas—they all promise things like economic development and progress fighting HIV/AIDS in very generic terms. A vote comes very much down to personal feelings of loyalty or frustration with whoever might be the head of whatever party.
But that doesn’t stop the clever campaigning. Whole entourages of fancy cars sporting decals of the party logos speed through the villages blasting dance music and packing in as many people as can possibly fit inside and then a few more. Party t-shirts and hats and posters are part of everyone’s proud new outfits. Last week, rallies for each party were held in Maseru in open fields around a stage, lights and sound system that could have hosted Lady Gaga. Mr. Mosisili played a cunning little move by writing personal checks to rent out all the charter buses that bring people into the city on rally day—the ticket to ride was a DC shirt. A friend who strongly opposes Mr. Mosisili, grabbed a free t-shirt, hopped a ride, and just went to a different rally instead.
For all the fluff and drama that politics (anywhere) can bring, this is a big day for Lesotho. This election is the first in over a decade that has stoked the fire in Basotho to get out and let their voices be heard. Our neighbors have definite and diverse opinions that they are taking to the polls today, and it’s exciting to see that. There is still plenty of skepticism about what might happen after the votes are counted—fears of rigged results or unrest or no change in actual governing. But the tiny kingdom of Lesotho has a chance to be an example to a continent that has far too few precedents of peaceful change-of-power, compliant leaders and democratic progress. Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu visited last month and urged all parties involved to set this example. We shall see in a matter of hours.
I should add (for the sake of our mothers) that Peace Corps is being very vigilant about the security of volunteers throughout election season. We’re safe in our village and they made us promise to stay out of any riots. Also, (for the sake of our bosses) none of what I’ve written here reflects the official views of Peace Corps or the United States, who are proud nonpartisan supporters of the election process. Go democracy!