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Voters to Cast Ballots in Lesotho Elections - 2002-05-25


Voters are going to the polls in the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho. The country is hoping to avoid a repeat of the violence that followed its last election, in 1998. With this week's poll, Lesotho will be using a totally new electoral system.

Many voters in Lesotho seem to be responding enthusiastically to the new voting system. Long lines were forming in the bitter cold outside many polling stations before they even opened.

At one polling station in Maseru, voters huddled over a portable gas heater to keep warm. At another, in a rural village in the mountains about 30 kilometers away, people built a crackling fire as they waited to cast their ballots.

Despite the cold, the voting seemed to be going smoothly in both urban and rural areas. Hundreds of people traveled long distances, often trudging up steep mountain roads, to get to polling stations.

Polling agent Frank Ntlaloe said he was pleased with the turnout in his area, where people started lining up in the wee hours of the morning. "The very first person, the very first person who came here for voting came here at two o'clock in the morning. And wonderful enough, that was an old lady, accompanied by her grandchildren. That's a very good example, because she is showing that she is eager to vote," he said.

Lesotho's new electoral system is designed to give opposition parties a voice in parliament, which they have lacked for most of the tiny nation's history.

The 1998 elections ended in chaos after one party, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy, won every seat in parliament, except one. Even though opposition parties had won 40 percent of the vote nationwide, they only ended up with a single seat, because the LCD managed to win a majority in almost every constituency.

Soldiers who supported the opposition began to mutiny. The government called on the neighboring countries of South Africa and Botswana to send troops to help restore order, but the military intervention was a disaster. By the time the crisis ended, at least 75 people were dead.

In the small village of Ha-Motloeloa, Simon Sekoere said he thinks the new electoral system will prevent a repeat of the violence. "I think, this time, things are going to be very much better with this new system, because the opposition parties, they also have followers. So, if they don't have their representatives in parliament, that is why there are some problems," he said.

This time around, voters cast two ballots - one for an individual candidate in their district, and one for a political party. The party ballots will be tabulated nationally, and 40 seats in parliament be awarded on the basis of proportional representation.

The other 80 seats will go to the individual candidates who win each constituency. In the town of Roma, 52-year-old geography teacher John Lillane said it will mean a fundamental change for the way Lesotho is governed.

"It's not going to be a one-party state like it used to be in the past. We are going to have different parties in the parliament, and in that way, there is going to be opposition in the government. As we know, in democracy, opposition is very important in the sense that the government is not going to do whatever it wants to do at any time," he said.

Lesotho is a tiny, mountainous country with only slightly more than two million people and 800,000 registered voters.

But the rugged terrain presents a challenge when it comes to collecting and counting the ballots. Some parts of the country are only accessible by horseback or helicopter. Even so, election officials hope to release early results within a few days, and final results by the end of the week.

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