We have the right to know

We have the right to know

It is now three months since a new coalition government assumed power in Lesotho. Like in any democracy, Basotho have a right to know how this coalition government is going to govern them.
After all, these four parties individually, before elections made promises that will impact on Lesotho’s development agenda.
Now that elections are over and they are in government, governing together as a coalition, their governance programme ought to have been known by now. In any democracy, political parties are public institutions. Their activities should be subjected to public scrutiny.

I find it odd that up until now the public is not privy to their coalition agreement. It is mandatory for this coalition government to present its coalition agreement to Basotho.
In fact, a coalition agreement is a reflection of good governance. It is a blueprint that established the current government. The importance of this agreement will be discussed below.

The Importance of Coalition Agreement

A coalition government is a mechanism through which willing parties come together to lead the nation. Their agreement is usually based on shared policy agreement that they want to pursue in government.  This type of government often consists of two or more political parties who must compromise on principles and shared mandate to govern the country.
In other words, coalition parties work on the basis of mutual trust and agreed procedures which foster collective decision-making and responsibility while respecting each party’s identity.
This notwithstanding, coalition parties must still adhere to the concept of collective responsibility. Cabinet decisions remain binding to all coalition partners and consultation forms the hallmark of this important agreement.

The importance of a coalition agreement in a democratic society cannot therefore be overemphasized.  Those who led successful coalitions agree that the most important contribution to a successful coalition is trust, respect among leaders and good relationships amongst political parties in the coalition marriage.

This is why a coalition agreement is so important. One way to manage many of the challenges coalition governments face is to have a coalition agreement. Coalition agreements are agreements on policies and procedures that are entered into by political parties.  From an agenda-setting perspective, coalition agreements set the policy agenda of the government and thereby determine which issues the government should try to promote (and avoid) in its governing period.

In fact, the coalition agreement is a contract constraining the behaviour of not only individual party supporters but cabinet parties and ministers as well. The contract also constitutes a vertical constraint.  It actually constrains all levels of the party from ministers to Members of Parliament and ordinary rank-and-file members. Hence, one crucial aspect of a coalition agreement is that it regulates relations both between and within parties.

In this sense, coalition agreements are pre-commitments, by which the parties bind themselves to the mast in such a way that they are able to deal with challenges that may threaten the viability of the government. A coalition agreement is a viable document that provides the leadership with the mechanism by which they can resist temptations and pressures from their respective parties to renege on their agreements.  It is the radar that guides the ship through troubled waters. The nonexistence of this covenant can bring about unpalatable consequences.

The consequences of lack of coalition agreement

Basotho may recall among others, some of the factors that led to the collapse of the 2012 coalition government. The All Basotho Convention (ABC) and Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) could not agree on how the coalition government should have worked. For instance, the LCD leadership perceived the coalition as supposed to be consultative in all major aspects of policy in government.

Conversely, the ABC leadership saw a coalition agreement as an inferior document to the national Constitution that gives the Prime Minister (PM) powers to do as he pleases. They claimed that the agreement had no bearing to what the PM does according to the Constitution.  As such he was not obliged to consult anybody when he made decisions regarding the dismissal of ministers who were picked by the LCD. It is now common knowledge that this view was extremely erroneous.

The collapse of the 2012 coalition government was not the consequence of a lack of coalition agreement but lack of enforcement mechanisms.
The most general type of institutional enforcement mechanism lies in coalition agreements that coalition parties enter before going into executive branch collaboration.
Coalition agreements, formal or informal, are generally designed to prevent defection and indiscipline among the parties to the coalition.
Such agreements impose various degrees of coalition discipline in parliamentary votes, as well as in other parliamentary activities.

The current absence of a public document like a coalition agreement has given rise to immense negativity not only within the government itself but among coalition partners themselves and the public at large as will be illustrated below.

Rise of cronyism

A coalition agreement is supposed to govern relations and guard against cronyism between partners. If this is not done it will give rise to cronyism in most sectors of the public service.
In providing employment and tenders, competition has become stiff. Each minister is racing against time to look after their own supporters to the detriment of national development.
That is precisely why the Prime Minister had to warn ministers to desist from venturing in the governance of tenders.
Most supporters of the current coalition government appear to have developed a sense of entitlement at the expense of professionalism. Ministers are provided with cadre lists for employment with complete disregard to public service ethics and good governance.
The situation is so rife to the extent that it has now created intra-party conflicts among coalition members. In an environment where there are no rules of conduct such as a coalition agreement these anomalies are inevitable.

Undermining democracy

There are rules in every democracy relating to governance matters. The formulation of a coalition agreement is not only essential for the beginning of a new government but also for the beginning of a new parliamentary term.
Government declarations are likely to influence the legislative process in which the opposition and government face each other. How can government seriously govern the country without providing the nation with their governance programme?
The failure to provide the nation with such an agreement will ultimately undermine our democracy. The question is why does the government not feel ready to publicise its agreement?
Previous coalition governments provided their coalition agreements without any fuss. The nation was able to evaluate these governments on the basis of their agreements.
Misguided perceptions

Without a coalition agreement, people are bound to form misguided perceptions and develop an expectation overload. Recently people have raised concerns about the appointment of individuals who are related to powerful personalities in Lesotho.  What is interesting in the cases is that the individuals are Basotho who are qualified to get employment like everyone else.
There is a dangerous tendency for some Basotho who claim that others do not deserve similar work opportunities just because they are related to prominent politicians even when they have the requisite qualifications.

That mentality is not only bankrupt but must be rejected. People join politics to support both their families and their countrymen. In any event, politics is about the equitable distribution of resources, it’s about who get what? How? When and why?
It is foolish and incomprehensible to expect that a politician’s family should not benefit from the products of his work after following clean government processes. A coalition agreement can become a viable instrument in managing these issues.

Conclusion

A coalition agreement in a democracy is sacrosanct. It is concerned with the policies the new government intends to pursue. In general, we expect a coalition agreement to be more comprehensive since it is a reflection of good governance.  We all know that coalition governments have a short gestation period. A coalition agreement is a public document and the nation has a Constitutional right to know what is involved.  Our local non-governmental organisations have said this all the time. The public have a right to be informed about coalition programmes.
The current noises and unfortunate attacks on other coalition partners do not augur well for the government. The nation has a right to know the government’s programmes.
We expect to see tighter, or more centralised coalitions which are manifested in more explicit and detailed agreements as well as more elaborate institutions for their enforcement.

Dr Fako Johnson Likoti

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