Guest Column

Why the IEC's reputation is so important

2016-06-17 11:26

Grant Masterson

In the wake of the Constitutional Court judgement that the Independent Electoral Commission is ‘inconsistent with the rule of law’ but should be given an additional 18 months to secure addresses for all persons on its voters roll, the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) has suggested that the IEC is now "suspect". At its campaign manifesto launch last month, the Economic Freedom Fighter’s Julius Malema weighed in, stating that the IEC was responsible for rigging elections in some wards in Alexandra township during the 2014 National Polls. And, in handing down its judgement, even the ConCourt itself concluded that the current IEC Voters Roll is ‘inconsistent with the rule of law’. 

The Electoral Court set aside 2015 by-elections in Tlokwe (which lead to yesterday’s ConCourt ruling), and have raised the heat on the IEC even further. Now the voter’s roll the IEC has been using has been declared ‘inconsistent’. It hasn’t been a good few months for the IEC and in many ways, it is difficult to sympathise – the IEC’s current problems are largely of its own making.

Consider that the Commission has had the small matter of the last 13 years to enact legislated amendments to the Electoral Act of 2003, and its explanations in response to court challenges on this matter were dismissed by the judges. Yet although the IEC can perhaps no longer claim an unblemished track record, the current ConCourt judgement does not suggest (either explicitly or through implication) that the Commission should now be considered, in the words of the FF+, ‘suspect’.

The key findings against the IEC in the current judgement related to the failure to enact a 2003 amendment to the voter’s roll. Yet in spite of this inexplicable oversight, the IEC has presided over five credible elections since. While this hardly excuses the IEC for failing to uphold the laws as prescribed, it illustrates that perhaps the FF+ statement needs to be placed in the context of a South Africa legal system that is accessible, credible and works to correct its errors. The ConCourt was at pains to highlight in its judgement that the failure of the IEC to demonstrate all voter addresses on its voters roll does not in and of itself invalidate the legitimacy of that voters roll. So why create confusion in the minds of voters regarding the potential legitimacy of the upcoming polls?

The IEC’s reputation is critical to its ability to deliver on its constitutional mandate “to manage free and fair elections at all levels of government”. Electoral periods in any country are characterised by heightened emotions and anticipation, and recent bouts of political violence in KwaZulu-Natal in particular have highlighted that the spectre of election-related violence is not yet behind us. Such incidences can escalate rapidly with or without the agency of political leaders. As there is no such thing as a perfect election (either locally or abroad), there are bound to be irregularities in the upcoming Local Government elections. This is why the reputation and public trust of the IEC is so important.

By undermining the IEC’s reputation, political parties are also inadvertently placing a cloud over their own legitimacy once the IEC announces the results of the Local Government Elections. Some of those parties will then look to form municipal councils and other structures based on those results, and if the voters have no faith in the IEC’s legitimacy or impartiality, the political parties are themselves undermined.

There is a reasonable expectation that the 2016 Local Government elections will be more competitive in a higher number of regions than any previous post-1994 polls, and as such the margins between the parties may be smaller than ever in some areas. At such times, it is important for all stakeholders (including political parties) to bolster the confidence of the electorate in the IEC and its work. This is why the ConCourt stressed as it did that the inconsistencies in the voters roll do not by themselves invalidate the elections.

The Council of the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) addressed public attacks on the IEC’s credibility earlier this week, stating in response Malema’s allegations of fraud that ‘such incendiary comments may encourage a confrontational and violent approach towards the IEC and its staff by supporters of the EFF’. Casac further noted the irony of the EFF accusing a Chapter 9 institution of fraudulent behaviour when it has gone to great lengths to protect the reputation of the Public Protector’s Office, another Chapter 9 institution.

This is not to suggest that if there are issues that political parties wish to raise they shouldn’t be encouraged to raise them, but thanks South Africa’s legal and institutional framework, anyone can seek relief from the Electoral Court, which has repeatedly demonstrated its impartiality in deliberating on such matters. Rather than using these judgements as ammunition for soundbites undermining the IEC, political parties across the political spectrum should be celebrating the evidence that the system works.

Consider for a moment the consequences of the alternative to granting the IEC a reprieve; disenfranchising upwards of 8 million otherwise eligible voters from the 2016 polls. This judgment proves once again that South Africa can resolve important national issues through proper process, the rule of la

- Grant Masterson is a Programme Manager: Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA)

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