Arriving on foot, horseback, car - even in a wheelbarrow - residents of this impoverished African kingdom flocked to polling stations Saturday to elect a new government.
In voting for a new parliament, and indirectly choosing the next prime minister, Lesotho is further embracing democracy following a series of coups and political shenanigans.Ailing Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle, leader of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy, plans to retire. As he cast his ballot, he joked that he feared people would get bored of him.
Even before dawn broke over the golden cliffs and dun-colored valleys, people began lining up at schoolhouses, tents and other voting stations in the Maryland-size country within South Africa's borders. Two people rolled one elderly man to a voting station in a wheelbarrow.
"What's going on here is all new," said U.S. Ambassador Bismarck Myrick. "Lesotho is becoming a model for what emerging democracies should be."
Independent Election Commission Chairman Sekara Mafisa said after polls closed Saturday that the voting had gone smoothly among Lesotho's 1.3 million voters. Results were expected Sunday.
"I have seen something I admire - people waiting patiently in long queues to exercise their constitutional right," he told The Associated Press. "That shows political maturity."
Lesotho's main source of income is remittances from its citizens working in South African gold mines. But a plunge in gold prices has forced tens of thousands of Lesotho miners to be laid off. Unemployment is about 40 percent.
Maliemo Tau, a dressmaker standing in line in the village of Thaba-Bosiu, said candidates had promised improved medical care, education and more job opportunities.
"They promised us a lot of things," Tau said. "I am putting my trust in them . . . and want to see that it's done."
For many in Lesotho, voting was a novelty.
"You make a mark for only one party," an election official told a woman, showing her a ballot.
Later, emerging from the voting booth - a plastic sheet held up by aluminum poles - the woman began putting the ballot into her pocket as she headed for the door. Monitors directed her to the metal ballot box.
In this election, 12 parties are competing. The party that wins more than 50 percent of seats in parliament selects the prime minister.