Defections and their impact on democracy

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molobeliBy Mzimkhulu Sithetho

RECENT months have been characterised by an unusual spree of defections across political parties.

This spree first unfolded at Lithoteng Constituency where the former Senkatana Party’s founding leader, Elia Mokhanoi, defected to the main opposition, Democratic Congress (DC).

He was said to have crossed with 100 members from his party, claiming he had been approached by the party leadership to join them.

Mokhanoi is a former All Basotho Convention (ABC) MP in the previous parliament, who had been rendered a lame duck by the party leadership after winning the constituency against their whims.

He commanded unwavering support from the constituency, way above the leadership’s darling and Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s close confidante Molobeli Soulo who is an enigma in his own constituency.

A few months later, Mechachane Constituency, which belongs to the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), followed suit with the defection of 200 members who were said to have crossed to the DC.

Mechachane was won by the Deputy Minister of Education, Apesi Ratšele.

This did not go unchallenged though, as there were serious refutations from the losing party that those numbers were “cooked” as the defectors were under-age youth who could not cast a vote, and that the constituency chairperson had crossed with a handful of followers.

Later, it was reported that those who had defected returned to their party, further mystifying the defection fiasco that has since occupied the political landscape of the country recently.

While the beliefs and disbeliefs about LCD’s defections to DC seemed to subside, there emerged another conundrum that also involved the DC, which appeared to be opening floodgates within other parties by taking others’ membership.

This time, the leading partner in the coalition government, the ABC, suffered some defections. It emerged that the Bela-Bela constituency, which belongs to the party and which was won by the Agriculture and Food Security Minister, Litšoane Litšoane, was up for grabs when the DC was reported to have gone away with a total of 300 members.

Litšoane has recently been involved in some alleged ignominy that has dented his public image.

Like in Mechachane, the claims of defections were not without rebuttals from the losing ABC, which dismissed claims by the recipient party, the DC.

The number later changed to 150 as covert and unauthentic audits were made about the actual number of people who had indeed defected.

The DC dished out statistics from which parties it had scavenged for membership — losers being ABC, LCD, BNP and the Popular Front for Democracy (PFD).

The order is significant as it denotes which party lost most to the least affected.

In another turn of events, recently, the ABC claimed it received 100 members at its rally in the Kolo constituency.

Kolo was won by the DC in the 2012 national elections. When the defections were reported, it was the second time that the ABC returned to the constituency in succession, probably in a bid to drum up support and win the hearts of the disgruntled voters.

The party had gone on a campaign trail, promising roads, electricity and water to the desperate voters who could not help find but solace in the ABC, which is in power anyway.

There were no refutations here.

As if this was not enough, LCD recently claimed during its leadership conference held at Lepereng that it received members who defected to it from the Maama constituency.

However, no figures were provided.

Maama has turned out a clear stronghold of the ABC, which it won in succession in the two elections, 2007 and 2012 respectively.

The defections tend to go in circles around the three main parties — ABC, LCD and DC, with BNP and PFD slightly surfacing in the recent swing of membership grabbing.

The last two are just but minnows in the political circles of Lesotho, though BNP is the junior partner in the coalition government, having contributed five seats.

PFD is part of the bloc of political parties that formed a breakaway opposition in parliament in defiance of joining the DC fold as opposition. The bloc, as it is commonly known, is headed by Marematlou Freedom Party (MFP) leader, Vincent Malebo, who is also Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament (PAC).

Defections are not a new phenomenon in Lesotho’s politics, but they have never happened in the manner they are taking after the 2012 elections.

During the last parliament (2007-2012), the ABC was a perpetual victim of loss of membership who defected to the then ruling LCD, crossing with prominent party leaders. The defections were flaunted by the then ruling party’s mouthpiece, Lesotho Television.

First it was former Maputsoe constituency MP for ABC, Nkhetse Monyalotsa, who went with an overwhelming 40 members to join the LCD, followed by Mookho Mathibeli who crossed with a sizeable number.

Pashu Mochesane and Leketekete Ketso returned to their home, LCD, to plead guilty to the party after having defected to the Lesotho People’s Congress (LPC) in 2001.

Ketso is now senior minister in the Coalition Government, holding the prestigious finance portfolio.

He was elected last week to join the politburo of the LCD as treasurer of the party, replacing Lebohang Ntsinyi, who has since been posted China on a diplomatic assignment.

In the past, defections were engineered by disgruntled MPs who organised members with whom they formed a new party after crossing the floor in parliament, mainly from the ruling party. It happened in 1997, when the then iconic Basutoland Congress Party (BCP) leader, Dr Ntsu Mokhehle, formed the LCD and declaring it as ruling.

In 2001, Kelebone Maope, then deputy leader and Deputy Prime Minister, crossed the floor and formed the LPC with a total of 27 MPs against 52 that remained with Pakalitha Mosisili, then leader of the LCD.

2006 added to the country’s gloomy history of breakaway splinters from the ruling party when the current Prime Minister, Thomas Thabane, crossed the floor with 17 MPs to form the ABC.

In between, there were no defections by ordinary members across political parties, in the fashion it happens today, but took place mainly towards elections.

When LCD split for the third time since its inception in 1997, in 2012, it registered the biggest split ever, with 45 MPs remaining in the ruling party arena in parliament and then later declared as government by the then Speaker of National Assembly, Ntlhoi Motsamai.

This bore resemblance with the 1997 split that formed the LCD, which had been carefully crafted and premeditated by the then Speaker, Dr Teboho Kolane.

A wide array of views has been expressed on the fashionable defections and their impact on the fledgling political democracy of the country.

Critical questions abound around the real reasons for defection, on whether they are based on political party ideological differences or just vested interests driven by the quest for self-aggrandisement.

Also, the question that comes to mind is that of political maturation of the voting populace.

A third question is whether those who defect are driven by disgruntlement for observing deviation from party policy, which is detrimental to the party.

Sharing his views on these political developments, the Executive Secretary of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), Mohapi Booi argues that voters are exercising their democratic right of association, which is enshrined in the Constitution of Lesotho.

According to Mohapi, this is clear manifestation of political maturation of the voting populace, which completely drifts away from the traditional hereditary nature of the politics of Lesotho, where people fervently believe in political parties as their homes that follow the family lineage like clans, from which they cannot move away, no matter the circumstances.

He argues that traditionally, it was felt a betrayal for a congressman to defect to the archrival nationalist stream or vice versa. He says the current crop of voters has injected a new dimension into the politics of Lesotho, defying the traditional “diehard nature” of voters, an invention that he commends as political maturity.

On the question of whether these defections have anything to do with political party ideological differences, Mohapi contends that Lesotho’s politics have not yet grown to a level where differences within parties are instigated by political party ideology.

He asserts that, instead, they are driven by factors such as the kind of music played in a certain party or by mob psychology or other trivial reasons that voters find suitable for them to move to other parties.

“Generally, Basotho have not grown to a level where choice of political party affiliation is premised on thorough analysis of a party’s ideology, and defection to another party follows the same trend,” Mohapi argues.

He says the same goes for policy difference in that it is not such differences which prompt voters to cross to other parties, but other trifling reasons that become the basis for defection and choice of parties.

Meanwhile, the Head of the Democracy and Human Rights Programme at the Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), Lira Theko, argues that it is a voluntary choice for a voter to join any political party, asserting the view that, conversely, it should also follow the same trend that those who want to leave and join other parties, do so voluntarily.

Theko puts forth an argument, which coincides with Mohapi’s in that it is manifestations of intra-party democratic freedom that voters enjoy by moving across political parties until they settle with the ones they feel meet their political expectations and ambitions, whichever these may be.

“People join political parties on their own volition, and by doing this, they exercise their democratic freedom of association, which is guaranteed in the country’s supreme law,” says Theko.

He says today’s politics have moved from a state where parties were under a spell of intimidation and threats levelled against those who dared exercise their freedoms by defecting willingly.

“People enjoy their freedom of choice, which is constitutionally-guaranteed,” he says.

He says this trend is beginning to put political parties under the spotlight and extreme pressure in terms of which one is able to pull more voters to its fold, which in turn gives credence to political competition, which in the past has been shrouded in a veil of suspicion of betrayal and intimidation.

Lira posits that democracy is about numbers and that this comes at an opportune moment when the political state of affairs is delicate, being characterised by eminence of a snap election that is whispered to be around the corner.

So, each party is bound to garner as much following as it can, should anything happen.

The civil society leader posits that sometimes frustration with the manner in which party affairs are conducted could be blamed for the defections.

He says above all, frustrations come when people’s interests and expectations are not met, such as securing a job after joining a political party.

He made an example of the chairperson of the Mechachane constituency who defected with some followers to the DC after disappointment when he did not see his expectations met, such as being appointed district administrator or being assigned to a foreign diplomatic mission as reward for being in the party while others defected to the DC during the split.

The latter instance brings to the fore, the big question on defections, “What is in it for me if I remain in this party? How do I or my family benefit from being staunch members of the party?”

If this is not answered or fulfilled, frustration surges as in the case of Mechachane.

For others, as Theko puts it, it is mere contestation for positions in the party, which breeds bitterness if one fails to grab a senior seat in the parties’ senior echelons, which seat also has some beneficiation mechanisms attached to it.

 

  • Sithetho is a journalist who lives in Maseru
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