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Was Lesotho’s low voter turn-out exaggerated? 0

One of the main issues around Lesotho’s general elections, including the recent poll of 3 June 2017, is the incredibly low voter turnout. Much of the commentary on this blames election fatigue, among other things. The 3 June general election was, for example, the third in five years. But, is there more to Lesotho’s voter apathy than election fatigue?

It is widely acknowledged that electoral participation is the cornerstone of modern democracy. Leading political scientists think low turn-out is a “common symptom of democratic ill health” (Norris 2012:221), and of “a crisis of democracy…[and] legitimacy” (Przeworski 2008:126). Politicians are thought to have more incentives to espouse policies in the ‘public interest’ when majority of citizens take free and fair elections seriously.

It was partly for these reasons that in the run-up to Lesotho’s snap election on 3 June 2017 — the third in five years— Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) embarked on an ambitious campaign to attain a voter turnout of 85%. If achieved, this would have eclipsed the 47% average turnout recorded in the previous general elections.

This being a snap election, IEC’s ‘85% voter turnout campaign’ was limited to within the three months of the election campaigning period (from March to June 2017). The limited time notwithstanding, the campaign was rather ill-informed of the real factors behind the voter apathy that goes back to 2007, and is one of the lowest in the SADC region. The content of the campaign material was not underpinned by empirical evidence regarding the factors that keep the majority of Basotho disinterested in voting.

The IEC and its pre-election campaign had absolutely no social media presence despite its main target being the youth and first-time voters. The result was that voter-turnout in 2017 remained roughly as it has been over the past four general elections.

A few hypotheses have been advanced regarding the low turnout in this election. The IEC spokesperson, Tuoe Hant’si conjectured that the presence of the members of Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) in the immediate vicinity of the voting stations might have intimidated potential voters, nullifying the positive effect of the ‘85% campaign’. Hantsi’s suspicions might hold water. While LDF has a long history of meddling in national politics, soldiers are usually confined to the barracks on the polling day.

Amidst allegations of connivance between powerful individuals within LDF and senior politicians in government, the unprecedented presence of armed soldiers around polling areas might have had a chilling effect. But we have no way of measuring how big the impact this was on turnout.

I have argued elsewhere that central to Lesotho’s high levels of apathy is an electorate that has been disenchanted with a fractured democracy for so long that it has given up on the notion that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for all others’. Basotho have grown weary of the political class that often pervert the idea of democracy to advance personal interests.

Regarding the recent poll, the straw that broke the Carmel’s back pertains to the circumstances surrounding the decision by the prime minister and the king to call an election instead of handing over to the opposition after the former lost the confidence of the majority of parliamentarians.

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By Moletsane Monyake


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Direttore Responsabile Giuseppe Frangi