With barely a week to go before parliamentary elections in Lesotho on May 26th, there is no sign in the bustling capital of Maseru of the usual campaign paraphernalia: no posters, no cars emblazoned with party colours, no loudspeakers blaring political slogans, nothing to suggest that this mountain kingdom, surrounded by South Africa, was in the throes of its most hotly contested poll since independence from Britain nearly 50 years ago. This does not mean the Basotho, Lesotho’s 2m inhabitants, are unengaged. But the radio and party rallies are their preferred method of campaigning. Any of the country’s three main parties could win. The closeness of the race has people worried. Elections in Lesotho are generally deemed fair, but they have often been followed by violence. In 1998 Pakalitha Mosisili, leader of the newly elected Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), had to ask the Southern African Development Community, a 15-member regional club which includes Lesotho, to send in troops to end months of rioting, looting, burning and killing. Many fear that could happen again.
In some ways, this episode was a surprise: the Basotho do not have the reputation of resorting to violence at the drop of a ballot box. Over two-thirds live off the land, tending small herds of cattle, sheep and goats beside patches of maize. The days are hot, the nights cool, the air crystal. Mountain streams provide 90% of the country’s electricity. Lesotho’s adult literacy rate—85%—is among Africa’s highest. It also boasts one of the continent’s better records in its treatment of women.
Still, life for most Basotho is hard. Over half the population lives below the poverty line. Three-quarters of homes lack electricity, a third are without running water or sanitation. Apart from diamonds and textiles, there is no industry. Many leave for South Africa, where wages are over a third higher and jobs easier to find. The economy is largely dependent on their remittances, along with a customs-duty payout from South Africa, and Western aid. Lesotho also has the world’s third-highest rate of HIV/AIDS, affecting one in four adults.