Voters in the small southern African kingdom of Lesotho are going to polls to elect a new government, in the third general election since 2012.
Saturday’s poll is seen as a two-horse race between old rivals Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili and Thomas Thabane, who ruled from 2012 to 2015.
The winner is set to emerge from post-vote negotiations, yet analysts expect the election to lead to another fractious coalition government and the risk of instability in a country where years of political in-fighting have undermined attempts to tackle high poverty and unemployment rates.
Voting opened at 05:00 GMT and closes at 15:00 GMT, with counting expected to take several days. According to the electoral commission, 1.2 million people have registered to vote.
Long queues formed outside polling stations from early morning despite the winter chill.
Tired of frequent elections, voters are ultimately seeking stability, Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from the capital, Maseru, said.
“It is not a change in the leadership they are looking for necessarily. They want a stable and effective government,” Miller said.
“What we have seen in the Lesotho politics in the last few years are constitutional difficulties and political in-fighting that have led to the same two leaders racing for power again.”
The snap election was announced in March when Mosisili lost a no-confidence vote after his seven-party coalition government broke up less than two years after it was formed.
Mosisili, the 72-year-old leader of the Democratic Congress (DC) party, is running to serve as prime minister for the third time. He was first premier from 1998 to 2012, and returned to power in 2015 after a snap election.
Despite his long years in office, critics accuse him doing little to improve standards of living for the majority of people in the country who languish in poverty, and he is often seen as aloof.
Thabane, the leader of the All Basotho Convention (ABC), was targeted by a coup attempt in 2014, prompting him to flee to South Africa, where he lived in exile for two years. The 77-year-old returned home in February, saying he still feared for his life.
He has drawn large crowds to his rallies and is seen as the narrow favourite.
In Maseru, the two leaders have competed for votes via giant billboards and posters.
“There is speculation that perhaps the army may connive with some politicians when the election outcome has been announced; that they should refuse the outcome of the election. That is not immediately foreseeable,” political analyst Hoolo Nyane told Al Jazeera.
“What is foreseeable is that if another government, other than this one, manages to win power, it is not going to work smoothly in terms of management.”
The mountainous, landlocked country suffers high unemployment and a 22.7 percent HIV-AIDS rate in adults, with an economy dependent on South Africa, which surrounds it completely.
Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy ruled by King Letsie III, who has no formal power, and it has a mixed parliamentary system.
Eighty members of parliament 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 sharply to just 46 percent in 2015 from 66 percent in 2002.
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