By Nthakoana Ngatane
MASERU – Finally! For the first time since independence, and since the constitution was amended in 1993, Lesotho will have a law to call for and govern referendums.
Minister of Justice and Law Lekhetho Rakuoane is scheduled to present the Referendum Bill 2021 for the first time on Friday, paving the way for parliament to debate on, and pass the law.
A referendum is a tool that gives ordinary citizens the power to make decisions on matters of national importance, including but not limited to constitutional amendments. A quick example is the raging debate about opening borders between Lesotho and South Africa or full incorporation.
The Referendum bill has basic provisions similar to the National Assembly Electoral Act 2011, but here I bring up for discussion and express my opinion on the following sections and provisions that I believe are most important:
1. who has the power to call a referendum
2. who can campaign for and against a referendum
3. who is eligible to vote in a referendum
4. and who can fund a referendum
THE POWER TO CALL A REFERENDUM SHOULD NOT BE LIMITED TO PARLIAMENT
Chapter 2 – Proclamation of referendum – states that:
Section 4 (1) Where Parliament considers that it is in the public interest to obtain, by means of a referendum, the opinion of electors on any issue or question, the King may, by proclamation and acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, direct that the opinion of electors be obtained by putting the question to the electors.
Section 4 (2) Parliament shall, for purposes of sub-section (1), indicate the period within which the Prime Minister advises the King to hold a referendum.
Section 8. No proclamation may be issued when Parliament stands dissolved.
I disagree that parliament or the government should be the only institutions that determine if and when it is necessary to hold a referendum.
There are issues that may not be of interest or favour to members of parliament or the government in power, but that are in the best interest of the people.
One such ongoing issue is the challenge by ordinary citizens of the power of the national assembly to decide to pay MP’s M5,000 petrol allowances in addition to their salaries and other benefits.
If citizens wanted to challenge the laws that give the national assembly such powers in a referendum, it is unlikely that parliament would decide to hold such a referendum.
Therefore, in the event that such a question should be put to a referendum, the likelihood that parliament or the government can frustrate it should be minimised or bypassed, provided the proposers of the referendum have satisfied the requirements for citizens to call a referendum.
I therefore believe that the law should specify a provision that ordinary citizens can satisfy in the form of a petition, that can compel the prime minister to advise the king to proclaim a referendum.
Switzerland is one of the countries that hold many referendums, and in 2021 alone referendums were held on 7 March and 13 June and two more will be held on 26 September and 28 November 2021.
That country has three types of referendums. The first is popular initiatives which are proposed by citizens with 100,000 signatures. The second, also citizen proposals, are called optional referendums to approve laws and they require 50,000 signatures. The third are mandatory referendums to revise the constitution, to join an international organisation or to introduce emergency federal legislation for over a year.
Lesotho must make provision in the law for an instrument similar to the Swiss initiative system which was meant to let groups that were not represented in the parliamentary process voice their concerns.
Critics say it undermines the political system, but others argue that it is democracy in its purest form.
CONCLUSION AND APPEAL:
The Referendum Bill gives ordinary Basotho the power to make decisions outside established political influence.
If you have never taken interest in how laws are made, please show your interest in this one and begin with it, because it will ensure that when elected public officials fail in parliament, you and I who have given them the mandate can take over with a referendum.
The next issue that I will comment on here on Lesotho Express will be FOREIGN FUNDING OF A REFERENDUM IN LESOTHO that the law wants to prohibit.