PARLIAMENT is scheduled to be reconvened on 24 February 2017 amid a planned no-confidence motion on Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s government by an alliance of opposition parties. The tripartite opposition bloc, consisting of the All Basotho Convention (ABC) Basotho National Party (BNP) and Reformed Congress of Lesotho (RCL), was bolstered last November after joining forces with former Democratic Congress (DC) deputy leader Monyane Moleleki, who has since formed a new party called Alliance of Democrats (AD).
In response, Dr Mosisili has vowed to dissolve parliament and call for early elections should the envisaged no-confidence motion see the light of the day and succeed.
In this Big Interview, Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, speaks with political scientist and outgoing director of the Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), Tšoeu Petlane, about the likely scenarios when the National Assembly reopens.
LT: Parliament is expected to reopen next month and already there is speculation the government is trying to neutralise the opposition in light of a looming no-confidence motion on Dr Mosisili. What is your take on this?
Petlane: The closure of parliament came about following a series of telling signs with the National Assembly not really working for about a month. I suspect this wasn’t necessarily because there was no business for parliament to transact. In my observation, parliament closed because already there was apparent disunity within the government ranks. One sees fear or avoidance of display of that disunity. The festive break was made at a time the opposition challenged a number of decisions National Assembly Speaker Nthloi Motsamai had made. Obviously, one could interpret the break as avoidance of addressing those issues. The build-up got to a boiling point when divisions in government, particularly the DC, were no longer contained within the party. They were now manifesting themselves in parliament. The parliamentary break, in the form and context that it came, shows signs it came because government was in crisis. Some other parties in government had also reached a level where their internal squabbles were now in the public domain. That situation weakened each of these parties and the government. At the time the speaker evoked the break, the DC faction under Ntate Mosisili had just won the battle against the other faction led by Ntate Moleleki through a High Court ruling. So in a way, the break was also meant to create space for parties in government to sort themselves out. First, the break was meant for the DC to work on its split and see what its impact was going to be. The break offers space for politicking outside parliament; for the parties to go back and strategize. Obviously the government was looking at this space to consolidate and regroup. Whether parliament reconvenes or not, the break is already controversial in terms of the context from which it came.
LT: In that case, why would the government not opt for a prorogation of parliament?
Petlane: I recently heard a comment which I won’t believe until I hear some corroboration which supports it. The comment suggests that government resorted to closing parliament sine die (indefinitely) after it had considered prorogation and found it would fail. I am not quite convinced with that argument. I would understand it if the government looked at all possibilities including prorogation, but already understood that prorogation was problematic. Sine die is flexible because government can reopen or extend the closure as they wish. The sine die breaks normally don’t preclude other parliamentary business from being transacted. For instance, parliament portfolio committees could still continue with business. But prorogation is equal to no parliament.
LT: Do you think the opposition will succeed in its motion?
Petlane: One of the things that I think a lot of observers and political parties tend to do is to underestimate government and the prime minister. The powers of incumbency and having the leavers of state power are incredible tools in the hands of those who hold them. Having on the government’s side the Leader of the House (Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing), the National Assembly speaker and the prime minister himself shows how powerful the government is in parliament. I think the opposition is underestimating the degree to which these tools are available to the sitting government. They seem to be underestimating the prime minister directly as a political actor. Ntate Mosisili has ruled this country for over 15 years. In a lot of ways, he actually survives on being underestimated. I would always want to caution our analysts and political parties that the most underestimated politicians, particularly in African politics, tend to survive. If one looks at Ntate Mosisili’s pronouncements and some other things, he makes a lot of mistakes; that is a given. But in terms of using some of the leavers available in terms of the Constitution, he has out-survived all of those originally-powerful forces in the congress movement. One of the calibrations that I see ahead of the reopening of parliament is the budget issue. If the first order of business when parliament reopens is the national budget, is the opposition willing to block the budget on account of wanting to remove the sitting government? The government is probably going to say they have bigger issues of national concern than a no-confidence motion. And since the government controls parliamentary business through the chairman of the business committee and Leader of the House, Ntate Metsing, it is always going to prove difficult for the opposition to table their agenda. The way I see it is that the timing of the reopening of parliament is already calculated to be close enough to the budget time so that while the opposition’s argument may hold water, the budget will be a priority. I have little difficulty seeing where the strategy of the opposition is and how it would overcome those hurdles.
LT: In line with what you have just said, Mr Moleleki recently announced they were going to oppose the budget. What will happen in that case?
Petlane: Let’s assume the opposition’s motion is not a priority in relation to the budget. Because of the numbers the opposition commands, if that can be demonstrated, its members can vote to block the budget. In our system, the convention is such that MPs can propose motions but the only people allowed to propose motions that cost money is the government. In short, only government can propose the budget. The opposition cannot say here is our alternative budget. The other element that goes together with that says whenever government is defeated on a motion that proposes money spending or allocation; the failure of government to pass such a law is the equivalent of a no-confidence motion. Normally, in our Westminster model, such a government would regard such a defeat as equal to a no-confidence motion and then resigns. My understanding of Ntate Moleleki’s statement would be that the opposition will oppose the budget and then Ntate Mosisili and his government would have to resign. The opposition can institute an alternative technical knockout which would still be equivalent to a no-confidence motion.
LT: The tripartite opposition bloc and Mr Moleleki’s AD have already signed a coalition agreement to unseat the incumbent government. What’s your take on this agreement?
Petlane: Every government says it is fighting corruption. Everyone that wants to be elected says he or she will fight corruption. Personally, I am not convinced that there is anything substantially different about the proposed opposition coalition that is going to enable them or even inspire them to fight corruption. The corruption that has been highlighted last year has been the Bidvest vehicle fleet issue associated with Ntate Mosisili’s faction of the DC. But one should then remember that there are two people who are likely to lead the new coalition government, and they are Ntate Thabane and Ntate Moleleki. One should recall what their relationship was when Ntate Thabane was in government and Ntate Moleleki was in the opposition in relation to issues about corruption. How are they going to manage corruption now? The other issue involves the outcome of the SADC Commission of Inquiry as contained in the Justice Mpaphi Phumaphi report. Obviously the sitting government has been reluctant to implement Justice Phumaphi’s recommendations. Ntate Moleleki’s party, AD, comes from that background. What is it now that has changed their mind? Or had they already been in disagreement with their friends to start with? It then becomes difficult to see that policy space where one would say this is what separates one side from the other.
Also, government has proposed a blanket amnesty. AD has pronounced itself various times through its leader that they agree with the government. The Ntate Thabane-led ABC disagrees with blanket amnesty. Interestingly, this issue is not addressed in the agreement of a coalition between these two parties. To me this could be a make or break issue. I fail to see how they can make such a coalition that appears to disagree on such a fundamental public issue. In the AD-ABC coalition agreement, I also see what I would call food-in-mouth disease or bullet-in-foot disease because I think it was not well thought through; that is a paragraph where they say they shall have a cabinet of 37 ministers. And then they continue to say they realise the cabinet is going to be too big. Then they go on to other things! If you are already talking about public spending wastage, corruption, cumbersome state institutions that are ineffective, then you again tell us that you are going to have the same size of the big cabinet, what exactly do you mean? You even realise the cabinet is too big but you are not proposing what to do about it! This shows it is not about the national interest but sharing the spoils. It is a political horse-trading which is not about serving the public; it is about serving particular people in power.
LT: Other than a no-confidence motion, you have said the opposition has an alternative of blocking the budget to force Dr Mosisili to resign. Can you compare the two options in terms of consequences?
Petlane: In the motion of no confidence, an alternative prime minister is proposed. When the defeated prime minister goes to the King, he has two choices; to tell the King about the proposed alternative prime minister or to dissolve parliament and call for elections. But in the case of a technical knockout, the prime minister will just have to inform the King that he has been defeated and is therefore resigning. There are no suggestions or recommendations that he can put before the King. It will remain with the King what to do next.
LT: Is calling for early elections feasible in your view?
Petlane: Elections are about two things. First is the availability of resources. The other is political will. Unfortunately they influence each other. There was no budget for the 2015 snap elections. But because there was political will, resources were found. In the same way, if there is political will to hold elections in 2017, government will find the budget.
LT: Under the circumstances, do you think the next government will be stable and last a five-year term?
Petlane: Probability not. Among other things we need to do is reforming our political system. I am not saying reform the Constitution, but the political system because these two different items. We should also build a different political culture that precludes politicians from forming new parties each time there are differences within themselves.