Attacks on IEC’s credibility are bad for democracy, commissioner says
Panellists discussing turnout with the electoral commission believe voters can punish underperforming politicians
The Electoral Commission of SA (IEC), which has been at the centre of litigation over the local government elections, has often found itself the target of unfair attacks that seek to tarnish its legitimacy, says commissioner Nomsa Masuku.
Speaking at a Business Day dialogue event with Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), Masuku said independent candidates and smaller parties and those “joining the fray” of political contest sometimes attacked the IEC “as part of their campaign strategy”. When they fare poorly, she said, they then claimed the body was against them: “That does not help.”
After the IEC’s decision to reopen candidate registration for the November 1 polls, which gave a lifeline to the ANC after it missed deadlines in dozens of constituencies, the IEC faced criticism and a legal dispute. The DA’s bid to have the move declared unconstitutional failed at the Constitutional Court, though the party has reserved its right to contest the result of the polls.
However, Masuku has admitted the organisation is not faultless. “It’s a huge operation that we run on a civil day and you do find the most bizarre things that people have not been trained to do,” she said.
Speaking at the event on Thursday, political scientist Collette Schulz-Herzenberg from Stellenbosch University said the election was an opportunity for voters to punish or reward their representatives.
Voting takes place against a backdrop of dissatisfaction with major political parties, including among young people eligible to vote who neither register nor cast their ballots. The voting also takes place in the context of overall turnout having declined in the 2019 national and provincial elections, something that may also happen in November compared with the 2016 local government elections.
“Elections do many things. They are not only about reward, necessarily, they’re also about punishment. It is a sanctioning device,” Schulz-Herzenberg said. However, spoiling one’s vote was not an effective show of discontent.
“I’m not a great believer in spoiled ballots ... it doesn’t change the vote outcome ... it’s a protest of sorts but it doesn’t change the status quo,” said Schulz-Herzenberg.
The university lecturer and researcher is “excited” about the rise in independent candidates who “could be grabbing the attention of local voters” in poorly run municipalities.
Noting the sudden decline in overall turnout in the 2019 national and provincial elections, she said she expected a similar decline in this year’s elections.
Additional research she mentioned found that SA voters who abstain are “disaffected by the political system more generally” and expressed a mistrust of established political parties. “We are correlating abstentions with levels of dissatisfaction with democracy,” Schulz-Herzenberg said.
Minhaj Jeenah, director for the non-government organisation My Vote Counts, welcomed the array of candidates vying for public backing. “We need new political players that listen and bring new ideas and a progressive imagination,” he said.
According to the IEC, there are more than 26-million adult voters on the roll, of which more than two-fifths (43%) are young adults aged 18 to 39. The “youth vote” in the upcoming election could have a major bearing on the outcome if turnout is comparable to registration.
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