JOHANNESBURG Voters in the highland African kingdom of Lesotho go to the polls on Saturday in a wide-open election that analysts say could end up without a clear result, as happened in 1998 when South Africa had to send in troops to quell major civil unrest.
Campaigning has been peaceful but a lack of opinion polls, and Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili's decision in February to quit the ruling party and go it alone under the banner of the new Democratic Congress (DC) party, have kept the landlocked nation's two million people on tenterhooks.
South African pop stars have helped draw large crowds to political rallies, livening up what is normally a sleepy backwater known mainly for being entirely surrounded by South Africa and having the continent's best cross-country skiing.
"It has brought a lot of excitement on the part of the people. We think there will be a high turnout because people are very interested to see what is going to happen," former Malawi President Bakili Muluzi, head of a Commonwealth observer team, told Reuters.
Results are expected to trickle into the capital, Maseru, on Sunday, and are most likely to leave Mosisili's DC at the front of the pack to form a new government but without a clear majority, analysts say.
If the DC is unable or unwilling to form a coalition with either of the other two main parties - the Lesotho Congress for Democracy and the All Basotho Convention - it could push the former British colony into choppy constitutional waters.
"The prospect of the DC being the party with the most MPs but not able to form a government - that would be a very disturbing scenario," said Hoolo 'Nyane, director of the Transformation Resource Centre, a Maseru think-tank.
A repeat of the 1998 political stand-off and subsequent fighting, in which at least 58 locals and eight South African soldiers died and large parts of Maseru were damaged, was "not completely unlikely", he added.
Since independence in 1966, Lesotho has undergone a number of military coups although Muluzi said he had received assurances from the army and police that they would act professionally and not take sides.
His Commonwealth observer team, one of several groups of monitors, are due to remain in place until June 1 to try to ensure a smooth post-election transition.
"I am aware that things can happen and therefore we would rather be around to see that a government has been put in place," he said.
Prolonged post-election unrest would put a dent in the $4 billion economy, which is forecast to expand at 4 percent this year due to a boom in diamond mining and a recovery in the farming sector after serious flooding in 2011.
Besides a slice of regional customs receipts, the country's other big earner is hydropower exported to South Africa from the massive mountain ranges that have made Lesotho a favorite of trivia fans as "the world's highest country" - its lowest point is 1,380 meters (4,528 feet) above sea level.
(Reporting by Ed Cropley; editing by Pravin Char)