Doubt has been cast on the level of preparedness of the elections management body, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) in delivering free and fair elections come October amid an avalanche of challenges.
IEC on Friday conceded to challenges that the commission is currently facing in the build up to the fifth general elections under its management since it was established in 1999. Chairperson, Justice Abednego Tafa, said they are ready to deliver elections despite difficulties such as budgetary constraints as well as shortage of staff. However, there is trouble in the horizon ahead of the October elections as pundits have raised doubts on the preparedness of IEC.
As the elections date fast approaches, the IEC’s readiness has been questioned following a low voter registration turn out, which has failed to meet the 80 percent target. University of Botswana (UB) political analyst Leonard Sesa has attributed the decline in registration turnout to insufficient voter education drive by IEC. The 2019 voter registration recorded a paltry 58 percent compared to 76 percent of eligible voters in 2014, representing a significant 18 percent voter registration decline.
Moreover, Sesa observes that IEC has been marred by several issues paramount among them being the full time principal residential address which has already triggered some court cases. In addition, he said intense intra-party conflicts during voter registration was a major turnoff to potential voters especially the youth. He singled out the conflict between President Mokgweetsi Masisi and Ian Khama in BDP, and the fall out between UDC and BMD to have dominated almost the whole registration period. “Political parties also have a role to play in enhancing voter education but it has been lacking from them. Parties focused more on internal conflicts that also still characterize this year’s elections,” he added.
Sesa, however, applauded the IEC for engaging the important stakeholder such as the media so as to share with the media its successes and challenges ahead of the elections.
Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) president Duma Boko has slammed the IEC calling it a useless body. Boko is one of the people currently appearing before the courts after a protest over his registration by independent candidate John Siele for allegedly providing inaccurate residential address when registering for elections. “Go and tell them that. It is either they are incompetent or complicit in what they are doing,” UDC leader blasted IEC.
Alliance for Progressives (AP) Secretary General Dr Phenyo Butale said his party will not be moved by the unfolding events which demonstrate incompetence on the part of the IEC, following a court case lodged against their leader Ndaba Gaolatlhe.
Tafa, however, said the IEC engaged political leaders on Friday morning to assure them of their preparedness to deliver credible elections.
IEC has been challenged in the past to leverage technology to stop conducting registration manually, which is dismissed as archaic, unsafe and inefficient. Pundits argue that IEC should integrate ICT in its systems to speed up processes such as the ongoing inspection of the voters rolls. This could save time wasted travelling long distances to examine the voters roll in places where voters have registered to vote.
Analyst Mokaloba Mokaloba, formerly with UB said IEC should consider shifting from manual registration to online digital registration, to avoid mistakes attributed to the traditional paper based registration process. “Technology can also be helpful even during the election day. For example journalists covering elections will also be able to access the latest information from all polling stations countrywide if IEC can introduce pre-programmed computing system as it has been adopted by South African’s IEC,”Mokaloba said.
IEC Executive Secretary Keireng Zuze conceded on Friday that the current manual system is a source of some errors in the voters roll. She said the IEC, however is not ready to leverage technology in its systems following the rejection of the tech based Electronic Voting Machines, EVMs.
IEC has been in hot soup for capturing mobile cell phone numbers during the registration process, a development which has raised eyebrows on the credibility of elections.
Appearing before Public Accounts Committee (PAC) last year, Zuze was criticised for the decision. Then PAC chairman Abraham Kesupile expressed discomfort and fear that the move might jeopardize the elections culminating in election rigging. AP leader and Gaborone Bonnington South MP Ndaba Gaolatlhe warned the IEC to tighten its risk and management strategy lest it runs the risk of having untidy elections.
Quizzed on the issue Zuze said the registration of mobile phones came out as an administrative purpose to reduce errors. “The registering mobile phones came out as a burning issue but we just registered cell phone numbers to be able to contact voters if we capture errors in the voters roll,” she said.
The members further said that with the modern technology, it would be easy for politicians to use those contact numbers to influence voters to their side as one message can be carried to multiple numbers.
A series of mishaps signaled by the upsurge of illegal voter registration leading to court cases has also raised questions over IEC readiness. Responding on the matter, Justice Tafa said IEC is grappling with heavy challenge over principal residential address which he said is worrisome. “IEC has so far registered over 1 500 objections country wide alone this year as compared to 633 in 2014 elections raising more eyebrows on the body’s readiness. The cases are before different magistrate courts over the country and we hope them to be resolved before elections approach,” Tafa revealed.
Some of the politicians contesting for elections such as Duma Boko, Ndaba Gaolatlhe and Dorcas Makgato have since been taken to courts for allegations of contravening the Electoral Act by providing wrong residential information.
Opposition political parties and analysts have long advocated for the full independence of IEC to no avail, to enable it to exercise more power. “IEC is not autonomous at all and in other jurisdictions you will see the election body to be independent separated from government. It is also not good for the leader of another political party that is also contesting the elections to be the one who calls the elections. What if by any chance it happens he calls elections early or put elections in hold,” said independent political analyst Mokaloba Mokaloba.
Furthermore, a study by three regional organisations has found that among other challenges, the independent electoral commissions lack independence. The study was conducted by Society Initiative in Southern Africa (OSISA), the Open Society Foundation’s Africa Regional Office (AfRO) and the Electoral Commissions Forum of the Southern African Development Community (ECF- SADC).
In the context of Botswana Professor Emmanuel Botlhale and Dr Onalenna Selolwane found that among other things, legislation was limited in addressing independence of the Independent Electoral Commissions.
The study found out that the IEC foremost challenge is the lack of an enabling legislation in the form of an IEC Act. “It is desirable that there be a specific law that defines the IEC, specifically, what its independence means. “It is notable that from the inception of the IEC, the commission clamored for the promulgation of the act; 18 years later this is yet to be done,” part of the study reads.
Government took a bombshell decision to withdraw some components of the Electoral (Amendment) Act of 2016 which comprised of the controversial Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). The EVMs had raised public outrage which saw Botswana Congress Party (BCP) taking the government to court over the EVMs which were supposed to be used in this year’s elections.
Government decided to scrap off the Electoral (Amendment) of 2016, therefore 2019 General Elections will be conducted in accordance with the existing Electoral Act [ Cap.02:09]. The Act does not provide for the use of EVMs, nor prohibits supplementary registration which also scrapped off under the 2016 Electoral (Amendment) Act.
Justice Tafa said BCP has since withdrawn the EVM case on the 8th of April 2019.
The 2014 general elections was marred by shortages of ballot papers in polling stations during the voting process, a move which resulted to the voters waiting for longer hours to cast their vote.
Ballot papers delays had also questioned the readiness of IEC to host the elections then, hence pundits calling for auditing of the IEC preparedness. Tafa indicated that all logistics will be available during the election time to avoid the delays during the voting process.
Commission Secretariat Zuze said they have failed to meet their 80 percent target of eligible voters as they have only reached 72.4 percent of their target. She said IEC will resort to conduct voter apathy research which has been conducted for the past 17 years as the last one was done in 2002, adding that IEC has since established a research unit.
Zuze on the other hand lamented shortage of resource both human and financial as the paramount obstacles that hinders IEC to fully drive voter education. “We are under resourced financially and we have serious shortage of staff. Our staff is limited hence we are failing to traverse the whole country. Our budget is not sufficient to cover the administrative costs,” she added.