It is the third general election since 2012 in Lesotho, where years of political in-fighting have undermined attempts to tackle dire poverty and unemployment.
Long queues formed outside polling stations, with many voters wearing traditional Basotho blankets to ward off the winter chill.
The snap election was announced in March when Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, 72, lost a no-confidence vote after his seven-party coalition government broke up less than two years after it was formed.
The vote is seen as a two-horse race between old rivals Mosisili and Thomas Thabane, who ruled from 2012 to 2015, with the victor set to emerge from post-vote negotiations with coalition partners.
Thabane, 77, drew large crowds to his rallies and is seen as the narrow favourite.
Protests could break out if Mosisili is defeated and he refuses to concede power “as his attitude and actions suggest he might,” said Peter Fabricius of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies.
Fabricius said SADC, the southern African regional body, had made it clear to Mosisili that “it will not tolerate any theft of the election.”
In the capital Maseru, Thabane’s All Basotho Congress (ABC) and Mosisili’s Democratic Congress (DC) party have competed for votes via giant billboards and posters.
“It is not likely that a single party will garner a majority of votes,” political analyst Mafa Sejanamane, of the National University of Lesotho, told AFP.
“The urban vote is largely set to go to the ABC. The vote in rural areas is now likely to be shared between the DC and its splinter, the Alliance of Democrats.”
The mountainous country suffers high unemployment and a 22.7% HIV-AIDS rate in adults, with an economy dependent on South Africa, which surrounds it completely.
“Our country is poor and a lot of money has been spent holding these elections. I’m here to vote for a party to put us first — not politics,” said Naledi Metsing, as she voted outside the capital.”
“We just voted two years ago and that government did not do much for the people.”
Augustine Mahiga, Tanzania’s foreign minister who is heading the SADC observer mission, said voting was orderly.
“The cycle of elections in this country is one of the challenges since there has been no completion of the normal five-year term in a long time,” he added.
Thabane was forced to flee to South Africa in 2014 after an attempted coup by the army.
“It was the most undignified thing that happened to me, to wear (just) my pants… and go through the fence with my wife, running away from the state house,” Thabane told AFP on the campaign trail.
At his final rally, Mosisili accused Thabane of escaping to seek foreign protection after “chowing through the public’s money.”
Critics accuse the national army of meddling in politics and of favouring Mosisili.
Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy ruled by King Letsie III, who has no formal power, and it has a mixed parliamentary system.
Eighty lawmakers are voted in by constituents, while another 40 seats are distributed proportionally.
Mosisili’s DC party is forecast to join forces with the Lesotho Congress of Democracy (LCD) and the Popular Front for Democracy (PFD).
Thabane’s ABC party and the Alliance Democrats (AD) of Monyane Moleleki, a former police minister, are also in talks to form a possible coalition government.
Reflecting frustration at the country’s politics, voter turnout declined to 46% in 2015 from 66% in 2002.
Voting closes at 1500 GMT, with counting expected to take several days.
– By AFP