Max du Preez

Trust in the electoral system must be restored

2015-10-06 08:00

Max du Preez

One of the strongest pillars on which the South African public’s trust in our democratic system was built was the knowledge that the results of elections were 100% correct and credible.

Justifiably or not, this trust is now a little shaken. With less than a year before the local government election this ought to set the alarm bells going and the red lights flashing, regardless if the suspicions are based more on prejudice and paranoia than on fact.

The election is going to be the most hotly contested since 1994 with few or no runaway victories for any party in any region. Every vote is going to count.

The 2016 election will also set the table for the general election of 2019, a contest that is already making the ANC nervous. ANC stalwart Frank Chikane was reported to have warned recently that the ANC could end up getting very close to 50% or even less of the vote then.

Next year’s election will probably also herald a new era of coalition politics in South Africa with no single party getting a clear majority in many local authorities, especially the metros of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay.

A crucial election, thus, with a lot at stake for all political parties and politicians.

If the results are not believed to be true and credible, it could inflict a deep wound on our democracy and even lead to serious instability.

Until recently all political parties and the vast majority of voters accepted the integrity of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

Then three things happened: the IEC tarnished its own clean record with its handling of by-elections in Tlokwe in 2013; the public protector accused the chairperson, Pansy Tlakula, of inappropriate transactions and she was forced from her position; and she was replaced as commissioner by a former adviser of president Jacob Zuma, Vuma Mashinini.

On top of that, the vacancy left by the resignation of the respected Raenette Taljaard in March this year has still not been filled. Professor Mcebisi Ndletyana of UJ and author of a recent book on the IEC suggested in an opinion piece on Sunday that the ANC could be delaying this process because it wants to make a "party appointment".

All the opposition parties have in recent months expressed concern about the credibility and neutrality of the IEC. The EFF, for example, stated recently that many electoral officers are members of the ANC-aligned South African Democratic Teachers Union and thus cannot be trusted.

The question is being asked: if the Zuma inner circle can successfully capture institutions such as the Hawks, the NPA, the SABC and SARS, why not the IEC?

President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF would most likely have lost the 2002 elections in Zimbabwe if it had been a fair contest. Former president Thabo Mbeki sent two judges, Dikgang Moseneke and Sisi Kamphepe, to monitor that election and they found that it wasn’t free and fair.

The judges’ harshest criticism wasn’t so much about the voting on the day, but about the violence, intimidation, the partisan actions of the police, the manipulation of voters rolls, the choices of voting stations, etcetera.

We need to learn from this. There are probably sufficient measures preventing cheating during the counting process. The other facets will have to be checked very closely and demand neutral oversight, especially the high levels of violence and intimidation we can expect next year.

Let’s be realistic: it’s not easy for anyone to cheat in an election or for results to be manipulated in South Africa. Staff at the IEC are experienced and efficient and we have little or no reason to expect them to suddenly turn into crooks.

Moreover, there is a good system of party and independent monitors keeping an eagle eye over the election campaign and election day.

But in politics, especially in an overheated political environment such as ours, perception and reality are nearly the same thing.

It is crucially important that the IEC, the government, the governing and all other political parties make sure that the voters’ trust in the electoral system is restored.

It will be disastrous if voters suspect cheating or manipulation, even when everything was above board.

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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