MASERU, Lesotho — No public holiday has been declared for today's general election in this southern African kingdom. But Tsepo Ntabe, owner of a well-stocked pharmacy here in the capital, plans to empty the cash register, send his staff home and lock the iron bars that barricade the store's windows and door.
"I'm worried," said the 60-year-old Ntabe, who has reason to fret.
In 1998, following the last national election, dozens of businesses in Maseru were destroyed as supporters of disgruntled opposition parties rioted, claiming that the vote had been rigged. Ntabe's original pharmacy was gutted, costing him about $125,000.
Chaos reigned when the nation's security forces took sides, with some rising in mutiny against the government. Scores of people were killed when troops from neighboring South Africa and other countries, acting under the auspices of the Southern African Development Community, intervened to restore order.
So, as Lesotho citizens prepare to vote today, it is no surprise that they remain anxious over the prospect of violence. Peace and economic stability top the concerns of many here.
While residents worry, however, local politicians, foreign diplomats and regional analysts say they are confident that the election will go smoothly.
"All the indications on the ground are to the effect that we do not have even the slightest semblance of the types of tensions that we had in 1998," said Mokhele Rantsie Likate, commissioner for the country's Independent Electoral Commission. "So we are expecting it to be very successful."
About 831,000 of 900,000 eligible voters are registered to cast ballots.
A new voting system, the product of lengthy South Africa-led negotiations between Lesotho's wrangling parties, is being touted as a example of finding an African solution to an African problem, an approach many Western governments have long argued best serves the continent.
Foreign observers are hoping that a successful election in Lesotho, which is surrounded by South Africa, might help discourage nondemocratic trends that have been seen recently in southern Africa. Elections in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Madagascar have raised concerns over incumbent parties manipulating the rules to ensure reelection.
"What we want to see in this election in particular is the establishment of a precedent, where they can have a good, clean election here, build a track record ... and then carry the trend forward," U.S. Ambassador Robert Geers Loftis said.
Under the revamped electoral procedure, Lesotho's National Assembly has been expanded from 80 to 120 seats. Eighty of the seats in the lower house will go to the winners of the popular vote in each race; the remainder will be distributed proportionally to parties based on the number of votes they get. The system is designed to give opposition groups a greater chance of getting seats and to encourage party coalitions.
"It's a fairly complicated formula, but it does guarantee that no [party] can completely dominate the Parliament," Loftis said.
In an effort to ensure transparency in the vote, the electoral commission has requested that the 380 accredited observers remain in place until all ballots have been counted. The parties' representatives at polling stations will be asked to confirm the number of voters at each site on the spot, rather than raising objections later. And there will be a limit of 500 voters per station to minimize delays.
Steps are being taken to prevent the military from being tempted to interfere in politics. South Africa and India have been running training programs aimed at converting Lesotho's army into a professional force, while the U.S. has provided education in how to conduct a court-martial and sponsored seminars on civil and military relations.
In November 2000, 33 soldiers were convicted on charges of mutiny and jailed for between three and 13 years for their role in the 1998 attempted putsch.
"The consensus is that the military will remain apolitical this time around," Loftis said.
Eighteen parties are fielding candidates for Parliament, and the top vote-getting party will be in a position to choose the next prime minister. The post currently is held by Pakalitha Mosisili, who was almost deposed in 1998 by the mutinous troops.
Mosisili's ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy is promising to continue initiatives aimed at creating jobs, alleviating poverty and providing a free and compulsory elementary education.
Such policies attract votes, said Government Secretary Tlohang Sekhamane, because "people are interested in who has demonstrated that they can deliver."
The LCD's toughest challenge is expected to come from Justin M. Lekhanya, a retired army general, who leads the opposition Basotho National Party and held power from 1986 to 1991 following a coup.