Polls close in Lesotho's general election
Ballot counting has begun in the African kingdom's most hotly contested election since independence.
Last Modified: 26 May 2012 16:34
Nearly one million eligible voters went to the polls to decide fate of candidates from among three main parties [AFP]

Polls have closed in Lesotho, where a series of party splits have resulted in three former allies fighting the closest general election since independence.

The 10 hours of voting across the landlocked mountainous nation in southern Africa ended at 5:00pm local time (15:00 GMT) on Saturday, although election officials said anyone still waiting in a line would be allowed to cast their ballot.

Ballot counting has already begun at each polling station, before the results are tallied in the capital Maseru. Final results are expected to be announced by Monday because of the remoteness of some communities in a rugged country with a poor road network.

Pakalitha Mosisili, the incumbent prime minister, in power since 1998, is asking voters to give him another term in office at the helm of his new Democratic Congress.

His main rival is Mothejoa Metsing, the new leader of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy, the party that Mosisili abandoned in February.

Hoping to benefit from the split in the ruling party is opposition leader Tom Thabane, who heads another breakaway party, the All Basotho Convention.

Voters began arriving long before dawn with many walking over hills and mountains while wrapped in blankets to wait in the cold outside schools and churches to cast their ballots.

The bitter personal rivalries among leaders of major parties have overshadowed worries about employment prospects and poverty. South Africa had to send in troops to quell unrest after an inconclusive vote in 1998.

'We need changes' 

Mosisili, who broke away from Lesotho Congress for Democracy to form his own Democratic Congress party, is ahead according to some opinion polls.

However, analysts say Mosisili's party could fall short of clear majority. And that would increase the chances of trouble if there was no deal on a coalition with either of the other two main parties - the Lesotho Congress for Democracy and the All Basotho Convention.

"I decided to go to the polls because I want changes. We are tired of this government, we need changes," said Mohato Bereng, a local chief, planning to vote for the Lesotho Congress for Democracy.

Since independence from Britain in 1966, Lesotho - dubbed “the world's highest country” because its lowest point is 1,380m above sea level - has undergone a number of military coups but former Malawi president Bakili Muluzi, head of a Commonwealth observer team, said he had assurances from the army and police that they would not take sides.

Prolonged post-election unrest would put a dent in the $4bn economy, which is forecast to expand at four per cent this year due to a boom in diamond mining and a recovery in the farming sector after serious flooding in 2011. One of the country's other biggest earners is hydropower exported to South Africa.

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