MASERU, May 26 – Lesotho’s one million voters head to the polls Saturday in a tight general election where bitter personal rivalries among the three main party leaders have overshadowed worries about jobs and poverty.
Polls opened at 7:00am (0500 GMT) for 10 hours of voting in this mountainous nation where many people walked or rode horses on the cold, early winter morning to reach voting stations in schools and churches.
The three main party leaders were all once allies whose falling out centred on the refusal of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili to hand over the reins of power.
Within the Lesotho Congress for Democracy, which Mosisili brought to power in 1998, tensions over his leadership prevented the party from holding its leadership conference.
Faced with growing pressure to step down, Mosisili broke away to form the Democratic Congress in February, taking a majority of parliamentarians with him.
He’s asking voters to give him another term, campaigning on Lesotho’s relative stability on his watch, which ended a long dictatorship and a rocky period of monarchy.
But a Gallup poll released last month ranked Mosisili among Africa’s five most despised leaders, with only 39 percent of those surveyed approving of his job performance — placing him alongside the likes of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
His main rival is the new LCD leader, former communications minister Mothejoa Metsing, who led the movement to remove Mosisili as party leader.
Hoping to benefit from the split in the ruling party is opposition leader Tom Thabane, who broke away from LCD to form the opposition All Basotho Convention in 2006 after yet another feud with Mosisili.
Lost in the clash of personalities are the worries of most ordinary Basotho. More than half of the nation’s two million people live in poverty.
Textile factories and diamond mines are the only major industries, but jobs are so scarce that many seek work in South Africa, which completely surrounds this landlocked nation.
Three quarters of homes have no electricity, one third have no running water, and nearly a quarter of adults is HIV-positive.
Many still travel by horse or donkey, bracing against the early winter cold by wrapping themselves in traditional blankets.
Despite the bucolic image, 18-year-old Rethabile Mphiphi said he’d rather have a paying job than tending his family’s sheep.
“I want to see more jobs. I want to see more people getting employed. I would take a job for a mining company,” he said, riding a donkey down a steep slope where some small streams had already iced over.
“I’m not sure who I’ll vote for. I’m still thinking about it,” he said about casting his first-ever ballot.
In the capital Maseru, even people who have jobs want government to do more about their conditions.
“We work hard on a meagre salary, and I would like them to address that,” said Momotselis Likotsi, 23, who works in a Taiwanese textile factory for about $100 a month.
“I really want a different government,” she said, planning to vote for LCD under Metsing.
Campaigning has proceeded peacefully, with few posters or banners on the streets and final rallies held a week before the balloting.
But many still remember Mosisili’s rise to power in 1998 elections, which were endorsed by observers but disputed by opposition protests. Protests turned so violent that South Africa led a regional military intervention to restore order.
Since then, electoral reforms have soothed many of the tensions, creating a parliament that includes 80 lawmakers elected by constituencies and 40 others who represent parties under a proportional vote system.
Initial results are expected Sunday, but the final count could come only Monday.