Voters in the small southern African kingdom of Lesotho cast ballots Saturday in an election widely expected to lead to another fractious coalition government and the risk of deepening instability.
It is the third general election since 2012 in Lesotho, where years of political in-fighting have undermined attempts to tackle dire poverty and unemployment.
Long queues formed outside polling stations from early morning, with many voters wearing traditional Basotho blankets to ward off the winter chill.
The snap election was announced in March when Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili lost a no-confidence vote after his seven-party coalition government broke up less than two years after it was formed.
The vote is seen as a two-horse race between old rivals Mosisili and Thomas Thabane, who ruled from 2012 to 2015, with the victor set to emerge from post-vote negotiations with coalition partners.
Thabane has drawn large crowds to his rallies and is seen as the narrow favourite.
Protests could break out if Mosisili is defeated and he refuses to concede power, "as his attitude and actions suggest he might," said Peter Fabricius of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies.
In a research report, Fabricius said SADC, the southern African regional body, had made it clear to Mosisili that "it will not tolerate any theft of the election."
In the capital Maseru, Thabane’s All Basotho Congress (ABC) and Mosisili’s Democratic Congress (DC) party have competed for votes via giant billboards and posters.
"It is not likely that a single party will garner a majority of votes," political analyst Mafa Sejanamane, of the National University of Lesotho, told AFP.
"The urban vote is largely set to go to the ABC. The vote in rural areas is now likely to be shared between the DC and its splinter, the Alliance of Democrats."
The mountainous country suffers high unemployment and a 22.7 per cent HIV-AIDS rate in adults, with an economy dependent on South Africa, which surrounds it completely.
"Our country is poor and a lot of money has been spent holding these elections. I’m here to vote for a party to put us first — not politics," said Naledi Metsing, as she lined up to vote outside the capital.
"We just voted two years ago and that government did not do much for the people."
According to the electoral commission, 1.2 million people have registered to vote.
Thabane was forced to flee to South Africa in 2014 after an attempted coup by the army.
"It was the most undignified thing that happened to me, to wear (just) my pants... and go through the fence with my wife, running away from the state house," Thabane said on the campaign trail.
At his final rally, Mosisili accused Thabane of escaping to seek foreign protection after "chowing through the public’s money."
Critics accuse the Lesotho army of meddling in politics and of favouring Mosisili.
Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy ruled by King Letsie III, who has no formal power, and it has a mixed parliamentary system.
Eighty lawmakers are voted in by constituents, while another 40 seats are distributed proportionally.
Mosisili’s DC party is forecast to join forces with the Lesotho Congress of Democracy (LCD) and the Popular Front for Democracy (PFD).
Thabane’s ABC party and the Alliance Democrats (AD) of Monyane Moleleki, a former police minister, are also in talks to form a possible coalition government.
Reflecting frustration at the country’s politics, voter turnout declined to 46 percent in 2015 from 66 percent in 2002.
Voting closes at 5pm, with counting expected to take several days.
- Independent Electoral Commission marshalls set up voting station on the eve of the country’s General Election on June 2, 2017 in Maseru, Lesotho.