In Africa’s year of elections, with democracy in retreat in many parts of the continent, Lesotho is a pygmy beside giants like Nigeria and other larger nations facing votes. But many observers are watching the small mountain nation as it heads to the polls Saturday, one of just a handful of African countries that in the past has seen a peaceful democratic handover of power from one party to another. Lesotho’s democratic credentials are in question after an attempted coup in August forced Prime Minister Tom Thabane to flee the country. Saturday’s balloting is supposed to resolve the crisis, if friction between political opponents and rival branches of the security forces doesn’t derail the process. Among the other countries facing elections this year are Sudan, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Mali, Burkino Faso, Burundi, Chad, Niger, Mauritania, Guinea, Central African Republic, Togo and Mauritius.
Jeff Smith, an Africa specialist at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, said Lesotho’s election is significant because the nation of 2 million had been a leader in democracy, press freedom and human rights in Africa, as other parts of the continent had seen a backslide in democratic values. “Lesotho’s important because, despite its problems last August, it is often regarded as a democratic standard-bearer throughout Africa,” said Smith. “It’s got a pretty big reputation to uphold.” He said Lesotho was one of the freer countries, as democratic gains are peeled back in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
“We have what I’d describe as a democracy recession. There’s a really worrying trend of leaders peacefully stealing elections,” said Smith, citing subtle methods such as the manipulation of voter rolls by incumbent parties to maintain a grip of power without using outright violence.
The most dangerous sign as Lesotho heads to the polls is the politicization of the security forces. In last year’s crisis, the police supported Thabane while the army supported a rival.