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IEC ready to deliver credible local gvt elections – Maqutu

by Lesotho Times
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FIVE months after the October 2022 elections that birthed Prime Minister Sam Matekane’s three-party coalition government, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is now hard at work preparing for local government elections that have been postponed from April to September 2023.

In this interview with Lesotho Times (LT) acting Deputy Editor Bongiwe Zihlangu,  IEC Director of Elections, Mpaiphele Maqutu, speaks on why the elections have been twice postponed. He also unpacks the Commission’s preparations for the elections and what Basotho should expect from him and his team after the criticism they have faced after they misallocated proportional representation seats after the 7 October 2022 general elections.


LT: Why have the local government elections been postponed twice?

Maqutu: The local government elections were supposed to have been held in September 2022 but they were postponed to April this year to make way for the 7 October 2022 elections. The two elections could not be conducted together because their laws had not yet been harmonised as envisioned in Lesotho’s ongoing multi-sectoral reforms process.

Also as a result of a shortage of funds, Local Government, Chieftainship, Home Affairs and Police Minister, Lebona Lephema, postponed them again to September this year. He is empowered by the law to postpone the polls by at least one year, through Legal Notice No. 19 of 2023.

LT: What is your take on the budget allocated to the IEC for the 2023-24 fiscal period? Will it cover all your planned projects during this period?

Maqutu: We have been allocated M371 million to cater for our election related activities, not just the local government polls. We have activities even when it’s not election year. We have mainstream activities, for instance the legal requirement of continuous voter registration. We try to update our voter’s roll as much as possible because now we are going for local government elections in September, which is just around the corner. Let’s remember that in earnest, local government elections were supposed to be held in September 2022, and this is an extension of the maximum 12 months allowed by the law. We had intended of course as the IEC, to see to it that both the national assembly and local government elections were held at the same time in October 2022 in order to relieve pressure on our budget and also to enjoy the resulting savings as opposed to having them separately. But of course, for that to happen, there are certain amendments that must be made to the existing laws. But with the national reforms not going through by the end of the 10th parliament last year, we couldn’t harmonise the two elections. Parliament sought to pass these laws but as we all know there was a legal process that set aside that entire process.

LT: In December last year, just two months after emerging from the National Assembly elections, you complained that the Commission was in debt as the 2022 elections were not allocated the full amount that you had requested, and that there were outstanding debts to pay party agents and other expenses. Where do you stand now?

Maqutu: The debt that you refer to emanated from the 7 October 2022 elections. I had a shortfall of about M55 million and couldn’t pay some of the suppliers. Essentially, I ran those elections on debt to some degree due to the budget shortfall. So, as we sit here today, I am pleased that I have received M59 million to pay my outstanding debts. I am working very hard to ensure that I have paid all those people that gave us services by 31 March (today). The budget I am referring is not part of the funds allocated to the IEC for the new financial year. It is just some relief that government gave us. I hope that I will be allowed to carry over the balance to the new financial year considering that there are still some debts to be paid. I’m not sure if the finance laws of the country allow that. We only got this money not so long ago, in fact, I have only 10 days to do everything that it is intended for. As you can imagine, it is hectic because now that the funds are here, I have to make sure that all processes are observed and that suppliers are paid.

However, I want to believe that political parties will be pleased because the bulk of the money is going to pay party agents. So, I am hoping that by the end of business tomorrow (yesterday), I would have paid the party agents. Some hoped that they would have been paid by Christmas last year but that wasn’t to be as we didn’t have money. I thank the government for giving us this money. It actually means we go into the new financial year without arrears. So, we are very grateful for that. We understand there are a lot of competing demands and that the fiscus is empty. But for government to have considered us a priority, I think all hats to them in that regard.

LT: How did the postponement of local government elections from April last year to September and then September again this year come about?

Maqutu: I think the reasonable inference would be that it was a question of funding. We were short of M55 million. We needed M300 million for local government elections in the 2022-23 financial year. The fact that government was able to come up with a supplementary budget provision in this financial year that is expiring on 31 March to cater for outstanding debts had to do with funding and to give the government a breather to recuperate the fiscus. This is a new government and they probably wanted to understand in greater detail what the dynamics were around the holding of the elections.

I also would want to assume that consultations must have been held with political party leaders. Remember that the people who are going to take this country to elections are those very political parties themselves. And for that to happen, there is also this whole thing around constituency delimitation. For the national assembly elections that we held last year, we had to use the new constituencies as delimitated. But then, the law that runs local government elections is totally different from national assembly elections. For such elections we have to use the previous demarcations of the electoral divisions. So, we have to reorient and re-induct people, from the new constituency delimitations to the old for local government. There is a lot of work that must be done. We are also finalising how electoral division (Eds) will be constituted. There also has to be a parallel exercise of voter education. Remember that every day we have people attaining the age of 18 which makes them eligible to vote. Those people will need to thoroughly understand what voting entails. We also have people who have long attained that age but they never bother to vote. We saw in terms of the low turnout that there is need to educate people on the need to participate in elections.

LT: There are concerns over low voter turnout and inconsistencies due to a defective voters’ rolls, which does not give a true reflection of what happens on the ground. Why is that so?

Maqutu: Let’s also remember that the appetite and uptake of local government elections is not as hyped as that of national assembly elections. So, we really must have a lot of drive to get people to participate in these elections. However, I can’t talk about attendance or the low voter turnout without making reference to our bloated voter register. In reality, our voters’ register for a population of about 2.2 million people should sit at least at around 800 000 to 900 000, not 1.3 million as estimated. That envisaged turnout figure is unrealistic. Even internationally, benchmarks have indicated that Lesotho’s register is unrealistic for a population of 2.2 million. So, much as we will always aspire to have a high voter turnout, the baseline against which we are currently measuring ourselves is factually incorrect.

LT: Please kindly take us through stages that the IEC must undertake before we get to the polling day. Is the time between now and September enough for the Commission to prepare for credible elections?

Maqutu: The breather we have had as a result of the postponement of the local government elections definitely gives us adequate time to prepare. In fact, we started as early as January when we returned from the year-end break. We just told ourselves that, look, even before we get a budget allocation, we are going to do all the work that doesn’t require money but requires planning. So, we believe that come September, we will be ready to deliver credible elections that Basotho have never seen before. We have been given funding although it has some shortfalls, albeit minimal. For the elections we had prepared a budget of M316 million but we have been allocated M300 million. Much as we have an allocation of M371 million, some of it encompasses other activities that are not local government elections related, such as recurrent expenditure. The money that is specifically geared towards local government elections has a shortfall of about M16 million, which means we have M300 million against a budget of M316 million. We are always striving to do more with less, so we hope that where we can make savings, it will make up for that shortfall. Even if we don’t completely make up for that deficit, we will have  very little debt. But that should not deter us from giving Basotho an election that they will be proud of.

However, we still have a challenge in that we are going to these elections with the same voters’ roll. That one I want to underscore for Basotho. That then means the challenges we’ve had with the voters’ roll will still be there. Despite this, we’re not sitting and twiddling our thumbs waiting for Father Christmas. We are employing other strategies to try and clean the same voters’ roll so that come September, it’s in a better shape. We’ll also be working on a streamlined portal which people can access and update their details in the comfort of their own homes. You will recall that we had already started that drive in preparation for the 7 October 2022 elections. But we had very little time then. Now we have ample time to perfect that aspect of technology. That way, Basotho will be able to ensure that they are well prepared. We will avoid issues such as people not finding their names at their polling stations on election day, because of them being in adjacent polling stations. We will also have enough time for voter education. So, with the funding that we will have received in time, the postponement means that my team and I have no excuse not to deliver. We are hoping after the local government elections, we will embark on a drive to completely do away with the current voter’s roll.


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