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Lesotho Elects Local Authorities for First Time

Lesotho is holding its first ever local government elections this Saturday. The move will shift responsibility for a range of services to the new authorities.

For the first time Basotho will choose the people responsible for the day-to-day running of services ranging from education, to utilities, to crime prevention and trade. Until now these services have been managed by councils made up of local chiefs and officials appointed by the government.

The change resulted from a constitutional amendment last year, having been mooted for over a decade. At stake are seats in 129 local councils, a third of which must be all-women councils.

This decision has angered some Basotho, who argue that by excluding men from being elected to some councils, the legislation goes against Lesotho's constitution which guarantees equal rights for all. The decision is in line with a declaration of the Southern Africa Development Community which requires that women must make up one third of all government institutions in the region by this year.

Ilona Tip of the Independent Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, told VOA that Lesotho chose to have women-only councils as a sure way to comply with the regional requirements.

"If you just said a third of your candidates must be women, it doesn't mean they would get in to local government elections, because voters may not vote them in,” she noted. “So this is a sure way of ensuring that 30 percent of women are at least participating in governance at the local level."

Several opposition parties have expressed concern that the elections are being held before the necessary infrastructure is in place to accommodate the new councils. Ms. Tip says that this has caused concern among candidates and voters alike.

“And because its happening for the first time, even though the regulations, the acts spell out certain core functions for local government, its still something very new - you know, what do we do and how do we do it, is a great concern for many potential councilors and voters,” she added.

Ms. Tip says it will be up to the new councilors to decide where and how to set up their offices and other infrastructure. In addition they will have to decide on local laws and regulations and how to implement them. She says like other countries in the region which have already gone through this process, the Basotho will work it out.

"This is Lesotho's local government, it has got to be driven by the Basotho themselves, this is their baby, its their structure,” she explained. “But financial resources we know are limited, expertise is limited, so although the ministry of local government will have the responsibility, it will need to rely on external support from donors, and possibly from institutions whether NGOs or other institutions who have experience in this field."

Lesotho is a tiny landlocked mountainous country with a largely rural population of less than two million. For many, the new local councils will for the first time, give them a say in the development of the areas in which they live.