May 26, 2012 / 9:52 AM / 8 years ago

Lesotho holds tense election

* World’s highest country on political knife-edge

* Fears of repeat of 1998 fighting

* Army promises not to get involved

By Marafaele Mohloboli

MASERU, May 26 (Reuters) - Voters in the highland African kingdom of Lesotho went to the polls on Saturday in a wide-open election that analysts say could end without a clear result, as happened in 1998 when South Africa had to send in troops to quell unrest.

The capital Maseru was quiet, with shops closed, as voters queued up on a crisp and clear southern hemisphere winter morning.

Campaigning has been peaceful but a lack of opinion polls, and Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s decision 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.

“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.

Mosisili’s DC is expected to do best but without a clear majority, analysts say. That would increase the chances of trouble if there is no deal on a coalition with either of the other two main parties - the Lesotho Congress for Democracy and the All Basotho Convention.

“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.

Results are expected to trickle into Maseru on Sunday but a final tally may not be known until early next week because of the remoteness of some communities in a rugged country with a poor road network.

Since independence from Britain in 1966, Lesotho 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 $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 favourite of trivia fans as “the world’s highest country” - its lowest point is 1,380 metres (4,528 feet) above sea level.

Lesotho is completely ringed by South Africa and is heavily dependent on its dominant neighbour. (Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Ed Stoddard and Matthew Tostevin)

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