Voters in the southern African nation of Lesotho choose a parliament Saturday in elections that were called early after 18 parliament members split from the ruling party to form a new opposition party. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from our Southern Africa bureau in Johannesburg.

Lesotho's 900,000 registered voters are to choose a new parliament Saturday in an election that has been invigorated by the emergence of a new opposition party.

Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili called snap elections in November after 18 members of his party, led by former Communications Minister Tom Thabane, defected to form the All Basotho Convention.

Denis Kadima is the director of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, which is observing the elections in Lesotho. He notes that election officials have had only three months to prepare for the vote.

"The main challenge for these elections has been the fact that it is an early election, coming too early compared to what was expected," he said.

He says this led to complaints over voter registration lists and identity cards, but, he says, the electoral commission has addressed many of the complaints in recent weeks.

Nevertheless, he says, opposition parties continue to protest that the ruling party has been given more access on state-run media.

The prime minister's Lesotho Congress for Democracy is facing a challenge from the new party and more than a dozen other opposition parties. They accuse it of failing to address poverty and the high incidence of AIDS in the country.

Kadima says the campaign has been dynamic because of the new party.

"Of course, you still have personality politics and character assassination. But in the main, it's quite good to see that people are talking about issues," he said.

Residents still recall an outbreak of violence following the elections in 1998, which only ended with the arrival of troops from South Africa and Botswana.

The head of an observers group from the Lesotho Catholic Bishop's Conference, Tsebo Matsasa, acknowledges the fears remain, but says they are unfounded.

"There were some issues, which some of them were just speculation, regarding having post-election violence. And [but] we have heard leaders of political parties appealing to their followers to accept the results, and also to be tolerant during the election and thereafter," he said.

Some observers say the short period allowed for preparation of the vote may cause delays in deliveries of ballot materials and vote tabulation. South Africa has offered to provide logistical assistance, including several helicopters, to aid the process if necessary.