Polity: Parliamentary democracy and traditional chiefs
Population: 2,200,000
GNI/Capita: $1,854
Life Expectancy: 53
Religious Groups: N/A
Ethnic Groups: Sotho (99.7 percent), other, including European and Asian (0.3 percent)
Capital: Maseru

Political Rights Score: 4
Civil Liberties Score: 4
Status: Partly Free


After many delays, Lesotho made progress in 2001 on holding general elections to extract the country from a political crisis that had erupted after voting in 1998. The Independent Electoral Commission in 2001 completed registering voters for elections to be held by mid-2002. Political parties, civil society groups, and the media observed the registration process. The new "mixed member" voting system, which was under debate by parliament at the end of 2001, would expand the number of national assembly seats by 40 to 120. The additional seats would be elected by proportional representation, while the others would continue to be chosen by the "first past the post" system of awarding seats to whomever gets the most votes. The new system was developed by the electoral commission and the Interim Political Authority (IPA), which were set up following postelection violence in September 1998 to oversee preparations for the polls. The IPA includes two representatives from each of the country's 12 main political parties. At least 16 parties are registered for the 2002 elections.

Lesotho's status as a British protectorate saved it from incorporation into South Africa. King Moshoeshoe II reigned from independence in 1966 until the installation of his son as King Letsie III in a 1990 military coup. Democratic elections in 1993 did not lead to stability. After violent military infighting, assassinations, and a suspension of constitutional rule in 1994, King Letsie III abdicated to allow his father's reinstatement. He resumed the throne following the accidental death of his father in January 1996.

Troops from South Africa and Botswana were sent to the mountain kingdom at the request of Prime Minster Pakalitha Mosisili under the mandate of the 14-country Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) in September 1998 to quell army-backed violence and a potential overthrow of the government. The violence was touched off by the results of national assembly elections the previous May. Although international observers described the voting as free and fair, demonstrators rejected the results that gave the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) 79 of 80 national assembly seats. At least 100 people were reportedly killed before order was restored. An agreement, drafted by the Commonwealth in 1998, allowed the elected, but highly unpopular, government to retain power, but stipulated that new elections be supervised by an independent election commission. The SADC, the United Nations, and the Commonwealth repeatedly have stepped in to mediate.

Prime Minister Mosisili told parliament in November 2001 that opposition leaders who were involved in the 1998 army mutiny would be charged with high treason. Citing a report by a judicial commission set up to investigate the mutiny, Mosisili said three opposition parties were responsible for the protest that spread through the capital in an aim to overthrow the government. He proposed that a special tribunal be set up to deal with the cases. Prosecution of those involved in the disturbances, however, could lead to more violence in 2002.

Entirely surrounded by South Africa, Lesotho is highly dependent on its powerful neighbor. Its economy is sustained by remittances from its many citizens who work in South African mines. A world slump in gold prices has led to job loss and decreased earnings, but there has been some recovery in the manufacturing sector. The International Monetary Fund in 2001 commended Lesotho for its privatization efforts.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The people of Lesotho are guaranteed the right to change their leaders through free and fair elections, but mistrust and delays have marred the process. Legislative elections in May 1998 were determined to be generally free and fair, but the LCD's 60 percent vote translated into an almost total exclusion of opposition parties such as the Basotho National Party (BNP). The appearance of irregularities and the virtual elimination of opposition voices from government fueled protests against the results. Some nongovernmental organizations object that the new mixed-member voting system is too confusing for most voters in Lesotho. Each voter would receive two ballots: one for candidates and one for political parties for proportional representation.

The senate, the upper house of the bicameral legislature, includes royal appointees and Lesotho's 22 principal traditional chiefs, who still wield considerable authority in rural areas. Any elected government's exercise of its constitutional authority remains limited by the autonomy of the military, the royal family, and traditional clan structures.

Courts are nominally independent, but higher courts are especially subject to outside influence. The large case backlog often leads to lengthy delays in trials. Mistreatment of civilians by security forces reportedly continues. Several nongovernmental organizations operate openly. Prison conditions are poor, but not life threatening.

The government generally respects freedom of speech and the press, but journalists have suffered occasional harassment and attacks. There are several independent newspapers that routinely criticize the government. There are four private radio stations, and extensive South African radio and television broadcasts reach Lesotho.

Freedom of religion in the predominantly Christian country is generally respected. The 1993 constitution bars gender-based discrimination, but customary practice and law still restrict women's rights in several areas, including property rights and inheritance. A woman is considered a legal minor while her husband is alive. Domestic violence is reportedly widespread but is becoming increasingly socially unacceptable. Women's rights organizations have highlighted the importance of women participating in the democratic process as part of a broader effort to educate women about their rights under customary and common law.

Freedom of assembly is generally respected, and labor rights are constitutionally guaranteed. However, the labor and trade union movement is weak and fragmented. Approximately ten percent of the country's labor force, which is mostly engaged in subsistence agriculture or employment in South Africa, is unionized. Although collective bargaining rights and the right to strike are recognized by law, they are sometimes denied by government negotiators.

Trend Arrow

Lesotho received an upward trend arrow for making progress in creating conditions for holding national assembly elections.

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