The bells are tolling for Thabane

The bells are tolling for Thabane

MASERU – “WHEN you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books you will be reading meanings,” said William E.B. Du Bois, an author, historian and civil rights activist.
By now Prime Minister Thomas Thabane should have grasped the import of the numbers in the crushing defeat his government suffered in Parliament on Monday.
Only 49 MPs voted for the National Reforms Bill. The opposition responded with an emphatic 56 votes to stop the Bill in its tracks.
The vote itself was supposed to be a simple parliamentary chore: this was an important Bill to push through the much touted reforms and there was no real dispute on its content.
But these are not normal times in either the parliament or our politics. The opposition is not hostile to the bill but want to flex their newly found muscle against a cornered Prime Minister.
Sensing blood and emboldened by the chaos in the All Basotho Convention (ABC), the opposition is using every opportunity to test Thabane’s popularity.
Monday’s vote presented a golden chance for the opposition to assess how their proposed vote of no confidence against Thabane might go.
And the numbers showed that they are on the money.
If that was the result of the vote of no confidence then Thabane would have been packing his bags from the State House. It only takes a simple majority of the MPs present in a parliamentary session to topple a Prime Minister.

Even if we consider the other 15 MPs who were not in parliament on Monday its clear that Thabane is hanging on to power by the tip of his fingers. Nine of those MPs are spread between Professor Nqosa Mahao’s faction of the ABC, the Movement for Economic Change (MEC), the Democratic Congress (DC) and the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD). That takes the number of MPs pushing for Thabane’s ouster to 65.
Yet there is more.
One of the 49 MPs who voted with the government belongs to Professor Mahao’s faction. He is said to have since told his comrades in the faction that his vote with the government should not be construed to mean he is breaking ranks with them. If he sticks to his word it means Thabane will face 66 hostile MPs if the no confidence motion is eventually put to a vote. That makes his position more precarious than what political rhetoric, banter and speculation have previously suggested.

How to wriggle out of this quagmire is something that must be giving the Prime Minister a pounding headache. Where to get the numbers to fend off the vote is his biggest problem.
If this was eight months ago, when the chaos in the ABC was just starting, Thabane would have extended an olive branch to his nemeses and cobbled up a deal to keep his party intact.
Now the damage is done and Thabane is leading a split party, half of whose MPs are openly conniving with the opposition to push him out. So gruesome has been the brawl that it has nullified any prospect of peace between the factions. His attempts to cripple the other faction by firing its leaders have been blocked in the courts.
He could lure some of Mahao’s MPs with promises of coveted cabinet jobs but that would be at the risk of alienating the allies whose support he desperately need for political survival. So without the support of Mahao’s MPs, the Prime Minister is a sitting duck.

Still he has to get the numbers from somewhere to insulate himself from the vote. That is why for the past three months Thabane has turned to the LCD to augment his waning numbers.
It is not clear what kind of carrots he is dangling to Mothetjoa Metsing, his sworn enemy, but it can be safely speculated that they include some seats in cabinet and plum government positions.
Metsing has spoken vaguely about the possibility of a Government of National Unity. But that idea has found few takers in the opposition and even some LCD MPs who believe Thabane should fall on his sword.
Many opposition MPs believe that they have Thabane in a tight corner. They see a GNU as an arrangement that will only give a lifeline to Thabane who they believe has little leverage left to play.
Even if Thabane and Metsing can stitch up some arrangement, there is no guarantee that LCD MPs will pledge their votes to save his premiership. Metsing already faces an insurrection from some in his party, including MPs, who don’t agree with his ambivalence to Thabane’s overtures and are already frustrated with his leadership style. His LCD ship is in choppy waters as well.
So far Thabane has found it tough to entice some opposition MPs to help him fight his cause. He is deeply loathed by DC MPs.
Out of options, the Prime Minister seems to be resorting to a familiar game he played in 2014 when he was leader of Lesotho’s coalition government: frustrate the vote of no confidence for as long as possible by keeping the parliament shut.

Yet history has shown that this strategy can only work for some time. On June 10, 2014, Thabane hurriedly prorogued parliament.
He peddled the decision as a way to give him and his coalition partners time to patch their differences but the real reason was that it was a preemptive strike against a parliament that was ready to push him out.
A nasty fallout with his then deputy Prime Minister, Metsing, had whittled Thabane’s numbers in parliament and exposed him to a vote of no confidence.
Were it not for the pressure from SADC Thabane would have kept the parliament closed for 12 months as is allowed by the constitution.
After a tumultuous three months he buckled to regional pressure, reopened the parliament and called an election that ended his tenure.
It is doubtful that SADC will be as disdainful as it was five years ago if Thabane pulls the same stunt this time around. He can count on the fact that SADC is not as engaged with the Lesotho crisis as it was in 2014.
But just because SADC had cooled off its interest in Lesotho doesn’t mean Thabane is entirely free to use his powers to mute a parliament baying for his head.
That strategy comes with its own risks.

Internally, his position is weaker than it was during the first coalition.
Back in 2014 Thabane’s main problem was with his coalition partners and not his own party’s leadership. He had the backing of all his MPs who saw Metsing as a “congress man” out to sabotage a government they had installed after six years of a bitter struggle.
Thabane had cleverly turned the public anger against Metsing.
It was easy to blame the lack of jobs, festering corruption, biting poverty on Metsing.
It was an easy sale: Here was a belligerent deputy resisting the fight against corruption and disrupting government projects.

Today Thabane doesn’t have a boogeyman. The once meddlesome army is largely tamed and remains in the barracks. Monyane Moleleki, his deputy, is playing ball and has stayed out of the ABC battles.
The other coalition partners are fighting in his corner.
The trouble is within Thabane’s party where he has dismally failed to manage the succession battle.
It is his own comrades who want to topple him. It’s only for practical purposes that his opponents have joined forces with the position. The pressure to reopen parliament will therefore not come from SADC but his own party.

It hasn’t helped that Thabane has been losing the propaganda war waged by the Mahao faction. The faction has painted him as a leader who has no respect for the party’s democratic processes.
For evidence of this, they say, look at how he had fought to block Mahao’s committee from taking over despite a court order. They have also portrayed him as a weak leader who has allowed himself to be manipulated by his young and ambitious wife. For proof of this they point to allegations that the First Lady is nudging him to appoint her cronies and friends in government.
They say Thabane has been captured by a cabal of people doing the First Lady’s bidding.
Although backed by scant evidence, these allegations have resonated with a public already disappointed with Thabane’s rule.
All this means that this time Thabane will have to deal with intense internal pressure to reopen parliament.
Of course he will stretch his constitutional powers as far as they can take him when it comes to the opening and closing of parliament. The constitution is silent on when the parliament should reopen after the winter recess.

He can also bank on Speaker of Parliament, Sephiri Motanyane, who seems sympathetic to his cause. Motanyane’s decision to block the motion in June and hastily adjourn the parliament for the winter break was widely seen as an attempt to shield Thabane.
Motanyane said the motion could not be discussed because it had been brought by an MP who belongs to the ruling party. He also said Sam Rapapa, who had been suggested to replace Thabane, could not be Prime Minister because he is a ruling party member and is not a leader of the opposition or a coalition.
Motanyane stood by that explanation even as MPs vehemently protested. He reiterated those reasons in an interview with thepost a few hours after he adjourned parliament.
But now he can no longer claim to stand on firm ground because his hand has been weakened by a recent legal opinion from Attorney General, Haae Phoofolo, who said his reasons for rejecting the motion were unconstitutional.

That leaves Motanyane with only one card to play: keeping the parliament shut.
Yet he can only do that for some time before it becomes apparent that he and the Prime Minister are engaged in political gymnastics. Sooner rather than later, Thabane will have to face a hostile parliament and Motanyane will not have another trick to save him. Without parliament the reforms will stall and so are other Bills.
There is only so much a Prime Minister can do without parliament.
The bells are tolling.

Staff Reporter

 

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