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Lesotho: Africa’s First MMP Electoral System

 

The result of the ordinary National Assembly elections in Lesotho in May 1998 was very clear. The governing Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) won an overwhelming electoral victory, taking 79 of the 80 seats in the National Assembly.

The only problem was that LCD had only received the support of slightly over 60 per cent of the electorate. The result in terms of number of seats won was yet another example of how the FPTP electoral system can lead to remarkable discrepancies between the share of the vote and the share of the seats won by political parties. A discrepancy of this kind should not come as a surprise–it had happened before–but it was followed by the losing parties, and especially the main opposition party, the Basotho National Party (BNP), crying ‘Foul’. This was also nothing new, but it was a sad surprise that the accusations about the overall correctness of the 1998 election results (which were never seriously challenged), some time after they were published, incensed the public to such a degree that they started rioting in the streets of the capital, Maseru, setting fire to and demolishing public as well as private buildings.

The government called on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to intervene, and the SADC did so, relying mainly on the armed forces of South Africa. When order was restored, an agreement was reached on 2 October 1998 (later guaranteed by the SADC) which called for the establishment of an Interim Political Authority (IPA) on which the 12 parties which had put up candidates in the elections were given two seats each, no matter how small their electoral support. The IPA’s brief was to develop a new electoral system and suggest other political and administrative measures to strengthen Lesotho’s peaceful democratic development. However, all recommendations would be submitted to the government, which would then take them to Parliament to be enacted in the ordinary way.

The ideas behind the establishment of the IPA were clearly inspired by the institutions of the negotiation process in South Africa during the early part of the transition process, but it was not taken into account that the two processes were so different that the institutional solutions also had to be different. The subsequent political process in Lesotho was not an easy one, and it can be no surprise that the opposition’s overwhelming majority on the IPA—by 22 to 2 against the government of the day—was not conducive to a constructive climate of negotiation.

The IPA representatives, none of whom had been able to ensure a seat for themselves in the National Assembly, were eager to suggest an electoral system which would keep the single-member constituencies and at the same time provide for a much more proportional outcome at the next elections than had been the case in 1998. The obvious solution was either an MMP or a Parallel System. A German expert on electoral systems was invited to give a presentation, after which the IPA majority opted for the MMP solution, with some seats allocated in single-member districts and others allocated from party lists on a compensatory basis. The LCD—in complete control of the legislature—decided to opt for the alternative, the Parallel System, which would give it, on top of its expected massive share of the single-member district seats, an additional number reflecting its share of the votes cast for the seats not allocated in the single-member districts.

It soon transpired that the IPA was not aware of all the practical details that should be taken into consideration when deciding to go for MMP, such as the seat allocation formula, the issue of a formal electoral threshold, overhang mandates, one or two ballots, and so on. The number of seats in the two categories was also an issue, even though most IPA members seemed to agree that keeping the 80 single-member districts was a good idea and that it was only natural to have 50 compensatory seats. The basis for the latter suggestion was a little awkward: previously Lesotho had had 65 single-member districts. If it returned to that number and then added an identical number of compensatory seats (as in Germany), the National Assembly would have 130 seats altogether. However, if the size of the Assembly was to be 130, as the number of single-member districts for the time being was 80, and as it was difficult to imagine this number being changed in the immediate future, the number of compensatory seats had to be 50. The government challenged this number, among other reasons because Lesotho is a small and poor country which should only have a reasonable number of parliamentary seats.

The political conflict was easy to understand. The IPA, which was tasked with suggesting institutional solutions to the political impasse, was strongly in favour of MMP with 80 single-member districts and 50 compensatory seats, while the government—in complete control of the legislature, which had to pass all the IPA’s suggestions—argued that the best solution was a Parallel system with the same 80 single-member districts and probably 40 seats to be allocated separately on the basis of (preferably) the same ballot as was used in the single-member districts, although a second ballot was also an option.

The political compromise over the electoral system took some time to reach, mainly because of the level of distrust between the two sides and some hesitation about the very idea of compromise. It was eventually agreed that the electoral system should be MMP (which was the main opposition objective), while the number of seats should be 120 (80 + 40), which was very important for the government side. While the government held all the cards through its huge parliamentary majority, it was clear that some concession had to be made in order to ensure wider acceptance and thus legitimacy of the revisions. The consequent constitutional amendment required strong support not only in the National Assembly but also in the Senate (made up mainly of chiefs), which was another reason why compromise was necessary. The reason for this was that, if the two houses of Parliament could not agree on the constitutional amendment, it had to be put to a popular referendum, and this was not really possible because of disagreement over the electoral register. Eventually, the constitutional amendment was formally adopted in May 2001. Only then could the necessary changes to the electoral law be considered.

The 1998 internationally guaranteed agreement had provided for early elections, to take place in May 2000. This was completely unrealistic, not least because the government and the opposition (the IPA) were not really on speaking terms, and a new Independent Electoral Commission had only been appointed in April. Agreement was then reached on delaying the election by a year, but further delays in reaching agreement about the electoral system, concerns about an adequate voter registration system and so on meant that a new general election was only possible in May 2002.

The election went reasonably well. The LCD, not entirely unexpectedly, won 55 per cent of the party (PR) votes but 65 per cent of all the seats. The reason for this was that the party won 77 of the 78 single-member districts contested on election day (elections in the remaining two were postponed because of the death of candidates, but eventually the LCD also won them). The system does not have overhang mandates, so the opposition got all 40 compensatory seats.

Seven of the eight opposition parties which won seats ended up being under-represented in terms of share of votes compared to share of seats. This under-representation was, however, very much smaller than it had been in 1998, and the National Assembly of Lesotho is now a fairly representative body in terms of political representativeness. Thus the main objectives of the efforts after the 1998 troubles have certainly been achieved.

It is clear that the combination of (a) one party taking almost all the single-member districts, (b) only 33 per cent of the seats being compensatory seats, and (c) the absence of surplus seats may continue to cause some degree of disproportionality in future elections as well. However, this seems a small price to pay for the various improvements in the system achieved during the protracted political compromise-seeking process of 1999–2001, when it was also a concern not to have too many members of Parliament in a small and poor country.

Contributors: Jørgen Eklit

last modified March 14, 2006 07:54

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