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Elections: can IEC pass independence test?

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ELECTORAL management bodies are increasingly under pressure to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that they are truly independent of the control of the incumbent government. 

The independence of the election management bodies in Kenya and Zimbabwe recently has been highly compromised when the losing politicians clung to power against the will of the people. 

 In Lesotho the independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has been accused of erroneously allocating Proportional Representation parliamentary seats in a manner that favours the ruling party albeit unconstitutional. 

The IEC’s ability to run free and fair elections is in the spotlight precisely because people now doubt its impartiality. 

The constitution as well as the National Assembly Elections Act bestows upon the IEC power to run elections. 

The commission prepares the voter’s roll in a transparent manner and the qualification as well identification of eligible voters is done openly.

In Lesotho no person can vote in a constituency that he/she has not registered and almost all the people that vote in the constituency are known either to the chief, the presiding officer or the party agents. 

The secrecy of the ballot is ensured and the counting is inclusive.

 The announcement of the national results is informed by the announcement of results at the centres. 

This regime provides a system where it would be highly costly to undermine the clearly defined process, so cheating is almost impossible.

The commission is made of three commissioners one of which is the chairperson nominated by the king acting on the advice of the Council of State.  

Political party leaders participate in the process as they work on the preliminary submissions which then go to the Council of State.

When the commissioners work, they are not answerable to anyone. 

The commissioners in Lesotho may be removed from their office before expiry of their term under conditions specified by the law. 

In the event that there is reason to believe that a commissioner is incompetent, is suspected of misconduct or is insolvent, the Chief Justice would institute a tribunal to investigate the matter upon whose recommendations the commissioner may be released from his/her duties.

It is admitted that the IEC has not done enough, at least to the expectation of the ordinary citizens, to limit the monopoly of the party in government over the state media.

It is also admitted that it has done nothing to ensure that public resources are not used to advance campaign interests of the ruling party to the detriment of others. Yet that does not mean it is incapable of running a clean election. 

While the IEC is well positioned to deliver free and fair elections, it is weaker in dealing with public perceptions about elections.

The majority of people expressing discontent about the IEC do so on the basis of perceptions they hold about how elections should be run rather than how they are run. 

The question is whether the legal framework which creates an enabling environment for free and fair elections in Lesotho is enough and whether all stakeholders are ready to help the electorate understand and appreciate the work of IEC. 

Because elections are a contentious exercise, the referee normally loses favour with contesting parties.

It is good for our democracy when political parties challenge the IEC for irregular conduct but what is more important is how the IEC reacts to such challenges. 

The Basotho National Party, for example, has been calling for the opening of the ballot papers for a re-count to verify the announced results. 

The IEC’s dismissive response to the matter has not been helpful to the ordinary citizen. 

Its reaction has only triggered more suspicion about its operations.

It erodes the electorate’s trust in the way the IEC runs the elections.

It breeds contempt in the public and opens it to future attacks from opposition parties.

Because an election is a complex process many people rely on the information politicians giving them.

That is why the IEC should not undermine their contestations. 

It is basically wrong for the IEC to academically deal with political allegations and accusations on the manner in which it conducts elections.

At the end of the day, the IEC and others may not be able to account for the increasing voter apathy.

Many voters are likely to lose confidence in the voting process not so much because of what the IEC did but because of what they would have been told by politicians about the IEC.

People lose confidence when the IEC fails to argue convincingly that it had acted independently and fairly.

Perhaps the IEC should think of institutional transformation that will make it more accommodative and engaging.

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