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Lesotho Awaits Election Results - 2002-05-25

Ballots are being counted in southern Africa's tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho after voting Saturday in parliamentary elections. The country is hoping to set an example for its neighbors with a peaceful election process. Lesotho's last elections were marred by violence.

The ballot-counting began before all the polls were even closed. A few polling stations stayed open late because of a large voter turnout and a slower-than-usual voting process.

The whole nation is holding its breath, hoping to avoid a repeat of the violence that followed the last general election in Lesotho.

The 1998 elections ended in chaos after one party, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), 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.

Voters hope this time will be different. 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.

About 50 kilometers east of the capital, in the town of Roma, 52-year-old geography teacher John Lillane points out the new system 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," he said. "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."

This time around, voters cast two ballots - one for an individual candidate in their district, and one for a political party. The party ballots are being 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.

Lesotho is a tiny, mountainous country, completely surrounded by South Africa. It has only slightly more than two-million people, and 800,000 registered voters. But analysts say the importance of this election for the southern Africa region far outweighs Lesotho's small size and relative political insignificance.

Several other southern African countries have had serious electoral problems in the last six months. International and domestic observers say there were significant irregularities in Zambia's general election, held in late December. The Zimbabwean presidential poll in March was widely condemned by the international community. Madagascar's election dispute has dragged on for months, and currently threatens to plunge the island nation into civil war.

All of this has happened while South African President Thabo Mbeki is trying to convince the developed world that Africa is a good place to invest. Regional analysts say southern Africa desperately needs a successful election, and they hope Lesotho can provide it.

The spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission, Rethabile Pholo, stresses Lesotho is trying to set a positive example for its neighbors, by leaving behind the violent elections in its past. "So this is exactly what we are aiming to do. We are aiming for the African states to come and learn from us," he said. "We are aiming for the world to come and learn from us. And we really can't teach them something that is wrong. Hence we are working very hard to make sure this election becomes the success that we wish it should be."

Mr. Pholo says early results should be available within a few days, with final results in by the end of the week.