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Millionaire businessman turns tables to win Lesotho polls

Lesotho Revolution for Prosperity party (RFP) leader Sam Matekane (C) looks on as he walks to meet with supporters in Maseru, on October 8, 2022.   -  
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MARCO LONGARI/AFP or licensors -

Lesotho

In Lesotho, a millionaire political novice has won the most votes in legislative elections but fell short of securing a parliamentary majority that could have ended long-running political gridlock.

Revolution for Prosperity (RFP), a party set up only six months ago by a 64-year-old businessman Sam Matekane, won 56 out of 120 seats in parliament, according to final results published by the southern African country's electoral commission.

The small mountain kingdom has been governed for the past decade by a string of coalition governments that have proved fractious and frail, and no premier has served out a full five-year term.

Matekane, who styles himself as a champion of the country's business community and was considered an outsider in the vote, came close to an outright win but will now have to secure the support of smaller parties to form a government.

"His track record and people's anger towards other parties won him votes," said Tlohang Letsie, a politics lecturer at the National University of Lesotho.

"People see him as their messiah and that has its own pressure. He will have to work hard to make people... happy."

The Democratic Congress party led by Mathibeli Mokhothu came in second securing 29 lawmakers.

The All Basotho Convention party, which led the outgoing government, suffered a sharp drop in support, winning only eight seats.

Lesotho, which is completely surrounded by South Africa, ranks among the world's poorest countries, with more than 30% of its population living on less than $1.90 a day.

In an interview with AFP before the elections, Matekane said he hoped to turn things around, bringing his business skills to the government to relaunch the economy and tackle public debt and unemployment.

"Our country is sinking. So, we have to try and save (it) as business people," he said.

A philanthropist, he has become a popular figure in the kingdom, building schools, a stadium and even a theatre.

He funds scholarships, sponsors the national football federation and has helped with the purchase of vaccines during the coronavirus pandemic.

About 1.5 million people were registered to vote in the October 7 election. More than 50 parties were in the running.

Outgoing Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro of the ABC did not seek another term, after being ousted as party head earlier this year.

His predecessor Thomas Thabane was forced to step down in 2020 after being accused of ordering the murder of his estranged wife. Charges against him were dropped in July.

On Saturday, the day after the vote, a small crowd of Matekane's supporters gathered in the capital, Maseru, chanting "Prosperity is life!" to celebrate an early lead in the count.

"We did it, we are winning," said 40-year-old Mamamello Shoaepane.

"I come from the mountains, we have no food, no water, no nothing. The RFP is going to change that".

The 120-seat parliament is chosen by a mixed electoral system -- 80 lawmakers are voted in by constituents, while another 40 seats are distributed proportionally.

A constitutional monarchy where the king has no formal power, Lesotho has long been beset by political turmoil that has hampered development.

It has been buffeted by coups and attempted coups since its independence from Britain in 1966.