Johannesburg - Lesotho is staging early elections to restore order after a coup attempt, but there is concern that a rejection of the results by some parties could spark more violence, jeopardising hopes of improvement for the country's poor majority.
Lesothoans are set to hit the polls on Saturday amid fears that the early parliamentary elections aimed at restoring order following a coup attempt could plunge the southern African kingdom into yet more instability and violence.
Nearly five months after soldiers raided Prime Minister Tom Thabane's residence and police headquarters, tension is still running high in the capital Maseru, with a shoot-out between soldiers and the premier's bodyguards killing one person earlier this month.
"One of the big [political] players ... could challenge the result and that could lead to violence," says Dimpho Motsamai of South Africa's Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
While the Southern African Development Community (SADC) says the August raids "bore the hallmarks of a coup," the army says they were aimed at disarming rogue elements within the police force who were preparing to supply weapons to some political parties.
Thabane subsequently fled to South Africa, which surrounds the landlocked country of about 2 million residents ruled by King Letsie III, whose duties are mainly ceremonial.
Also read: Lesotho to hold vote under heavy regional police presence
The SADC brokered a solution to the crisis which resulted in the renegade army chief who allegedly spearheaded the coup attempt being sidelined and the elections being moved forward by two years.
Three major political parties - two of which form part of Thabane's coalition government - are vying for votes in the mountainous country roughly the size of Belgium, where nearly 60 per cent of the residents live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Lesotho has a long history of political unrest, having endured coups, changes of kings and assassination attempts against politicians since independence from Britain in 1966.
Elections have often been followed by violence, with a South African military intervention to quell rioting claiming about 60 lives in 1998.
A peaceful transition of power in 2012 and the formation of the country's first ever coalition government raised hopes of stability.
But the three-party coalition ran into trouble in June 2014, when Thabane's deputy Mothetjoa Metsing announced a vote of no confidence against the premier.
Thabane dissolved parliament and only reconvened it under pressure from the SADC in October.
Analysts say the strife could be related to Thabane's anti-corruption campaign, which threatened to implicate Metsing. The deputy premier is under investigation for his alleged involvement in the coup attempt.
The main political parties have their allies in the security forces, with many in the police force seen as siding with Thabane while Metsing enjoys support within the military, according to the IISS.
No opinion polls are carried out in Lesotho, where the three main parties have campaigned fiercely for votes, says government spokesman Ramakhula Ramakhula.
Fears of violence
They are Thabane's All Basotho Convention (ABC), Metsing's Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) and the main opposition party, former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili's Democratic Congress (DC).
None of the parties is likely to get enough votes to govern alone, Ramakhula says.
The army has promised to keep soldiers in the barracks on polling day to allay fears of violence, but questions remain as to what will happen after the publication of results.
Also read: Lesotho hunts 'assassins'
The elections are expected to be transparent, but "shortfalls in the logistics could be enough for some parties to question the outcome", Motsamai said.
Further political instability would weaken hopes of improvement of the economy, based mainly on farming, customs income, a declining textile industry and the sale of water to South Africa in a multibillion-dollar joint water project completed in the 1990s.