South Africa

Disgruntled election observers slam IEC’s ‘deliberate’ obstruction

By Simon Allison 6 May 2014

With just a day to go before the nation election, the IEC is embroiled in yet another controversy that could compromise its legitimacy. Two local organizations accredited as election observers told the Daily Maverick that the IEC is ‘setting them up for failure’. The IEC denies the charges, which probably stem more from miscommunication than anything more nefarious, but can its suddenly fragile credibility afford another blow? By SIMON ALLISON.

Two civil society organizations have criticized the Independent Electoral Commission’s “deliberate strategy” to make election observation more difficult – and warned that it could compromise the credibility of the elections.

In interviews with the Daily Maverick, the heads of the Hola Bon Renaissance Foundation and the Pretoria-based NGO Sukuma Sinqobe – both accredited election observers – described long delays in the accreditation process, a dire lack of communication from the IEC and training sessions that came too late to allow them to make timely logistical arrangements. This has resulted, they claim, in scores of potential civil society observers being excluded from the process.

Initially we wanted 15,000 observers, said Preddy Mothopeng, CEO of the Hola Bon Renaissance Foundation. Their plan was to assign at least one observer to every two polling stations, to make sure the counts posted at polling stations corroborated the national total. Mothopeng says that there was a donor willing to commit $3 million to the project. Failing to find enough volunteers, Mothopeng submitted a list of just 150 people for approval, whom the organization planned to fund itself. Of these, the IEC only accredited ten, he claims.

The only we response that we have received from the IEC is for 10 observers,” he said. He said that his organisation has tried and failed to bring the discrepancy to the attention of the IEC. “We have been requesting meetings since last year, but they don’t respond or get back to us. It seems there is some sort of a deliberate move to minimize observers. Even now we have not been accredited to observe inside the IEC, only at voting stations.”

For Mothopeng, this defeats the purpose of the observation exercise. “Our concern is at where they do data capturing and whatever they capture there, not at the voting station, where there are party representatives.” He is not convinced that the various mix-ups are simply the result of incompetence or disorganization. “It’s either those who are incompetent, yes; but also it might be those that have their own pre-outcomes for the election, and having observers and a strategy of observing is a threat.”

Mduduzi Makhubu, chairperson of Sukuma Sinqobe outlines similar complaints. His organization has 40 accredited observers, but he is unhappy with delays in the accreditation and observer training process. In particular, he is unhappy that an observer training workshop was only held last week, making it difficult for his organization to distribute the information and training materials.

I think it’s a deliberate strategy to make observing more difficult,” Makhubu said. “If they wanted to make it easy, they would have done accreditation earlier, and done the workshops earlier. They do have the funds. The government gave it to them. They are setting us up for failure. The budget is there from their side, why can they not get accreditation and training on time?”

The IEC denies these allegations, maintaining that its accreditation process is in line with international standards and that it has communicated with organisations in a timeous manner. Responding specifically to the allegations from the Hola Bon Renaissance Foundation, it said that the organization was bitter because it had not received any funding from the IEC. “Since we started the process, they have been harassing everyone here…the reason that we don’t fund observers is to keep the relationship as objective as possible,” said Mlungisi Kelembe, the IEC manager tasked with overseeing all election observers (some 2,000-odd from 78 local organisations, and another 600 from 23 international bodies). Further, Kelembe said that the extra 150 observers in question had in fact been approved – and that their passes were waiting at the national results centre for collection.

If anything, this development made Mathopeng – who denies pestering the IEC for funds – even more frustrated with the IEC when it was relayed to him by the Daily Maverick. “You see, this is the first I have heard about it [the accreditation of the 150 observers]. They have not even communicated with us. No email, no call, nothing. This is a clear sabotage by the IEC.” Mathopeng pointed out that it’s now too late for him to mobilise the volunteers anyway.

Clear sabotage or not – and it seems more likely that miscommunication and incompetence lie at the heart of this particular issue, rather than anything more nefarious – the civil society allegations come at a bad time for the IEC, which is already embroiled in with controversy thanks to the involvement of chairperson Pansy Tlakula in a dodgy tender corruption scandal. Several political parties have indicated that they may use her compromised position as grounds to challenge the result of the May 7 elections. In that case, the verdicts of the election observers could play a crucial role in determining the legitimacy of the vote.

Election observers are an important element of any democratic election. They are designed to be impartial, independent judges of the fairness and credibility of the election, and can play a major role in determining whether the outcome of an election is considered legitimate.

It is important for elections to be observed by independent observers as it heightens the public’s confidence in the election process and eventual outcome. It also gives the elections greater integrity,” said Mienke Mari Steytler, who served as an election observer in the 2013 poll in Kenya. She emphasizes the importance of local civil society observers in the observation process.

Elections can be observed more effectively by deploying better trained local observers – from non-governmental organisations – in greater numbers all over the country.” DM

Photo: Electoral Commission CEO Pansy Tlakula is seen at a news conference at the Results Operations Centre in Pretoria, Monday, 16 May 2011 where she briefed reporters on the IEC’s readiness for the local government elections. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

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