We are ready to deliver credible elections: IEC

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THE Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) appointed Advocate Mpaiphele Maqutu as the new director of elections. The appointment is for five years with effect from 1 March 2022. Adv Maqutu replaced former incumbent, Letholetseng Ntsike, whose contract expired in July 2020. The recruitment of a new director had been hamstrung by the IEC’s lack of funds, among other issues.

Among his immediate tasks, Adv Maqutu is charged with handling the upcoming harmonised elections expected this October. Lesotho Times (LT) reporter Kaleen Chikowore (LT) caught up with Adv Maqutu this week to discuss his new role and understand the organisation’s readiness for the upcoming elections. Excerpts:

LTWhat are your immediate tasks in your new role?

Adv Maqutu: I have just come into the office. So, I am acclimatising myself with the IEC as an organisation, that is how it is populated, how it functions and to see whether the organisational structure is fit to deliver. My duty is to ensure that the governance framework is in place for free and fair elections. So far, I’m confident that it (the IEC) will aid us deliver credible, free and fair elections for Lesotho.

My other duty is to ensure that the organisation has the requisite funding. The organisation has faced funding challenges therefore we need funding to make sure that we can fully deliver on our mandate. It must be noted that we have a constitutional mandate. For instance, we were unable to carry out by-elections when we lost five members of parliament. We have five vacancies in the National Assembly which we were unable to fill in compliance with the constitutional provisions that govern our work. It is one of the things that one must look at in terms of making sure that we have funding to ensure that in the future we don’t have similar problems.

There are also various laws for us to deliver on. Key among those is the Referendum Bill which is at an advanced stage towards promulgation into an Act. It’s currently with the upper house of parliament, thereafter it will go to the National Assembly for the second reading before it can be promulgated into law. There are four bills that immediately need to be given attention as they will enable the delivery of free and fair elections. We are working with the National Reforms Authority (NRA) in ensuring that they carry out their task.

Firstly, in the judiciary, there are issues that need to be reformed. For that to happen, we must firstly run a referendum which is part of the IEC’s mandate. Our role is to make sure that the work of the NRA transpires by ensuring that we execute the referendum.

Secondly, we have the Political Parties Bill. This proposed Bill will be responsible for the registration and accountability of political parties. Political parties are given funding by the IEC, that funding is taxpayers’ money. Therefore, the money needs to be strictly accounted for. We need the bill to ensure that there’s accountability with regard to the funds that are channelled towards political parties.

The third piece of proposed legislation that we are looking at is the Elections Bill which seeks to harmonise the elections.  Many countries around the world have moved to harmonising elections as a cost-effective measure.

We have a task to ensure voters understand harmonised elections hence the need for intensive voter education.

The fourth piece of legislation which we are trying to champion is the IEC Bill that ensures the IEC functions as an independent entity. The Bill seeks to ensure the IEC’s independence to fully discharge its mandate and that it is not a government department. The IEC will not be influenced by the government. When legislated, the notion of IEC as an independent organisation becomes real, even to the public.

Another aspect that immediately needs attention is reviewing constituency boundaries. The law that governs our operations says each of the eighty constituencies carry an even number of voters. There must be a fair distribution of voters so that one constituency doesn’t command more voters than another.

This can be difficult to maintain as people are constantly migrating for different reasons hence it can never be exact. However, there is a certain threshold where we have a population quota. We are given a 10 percent leeway, above and below, to ensure the threshold is the spatial distribution of voters.

Our mandate is to align with population counts and come up with new numbers that are reflective of the population distribution. Therefore, we must ensure that we delineate the constituencies, anew. This process is done in consultation with the public for several reasons, some cultural. We are working on the process; it is already at an advanced stage.

Consulting the public gives them an opportunity to raise objections to the proposed new delimitations of those constituencies. The people make the representations in writing, then we respond to those representations. Once in receipt of our responses we give their representatives, seven days from the date they received our responses to revert to us. This is the stage we are at now; we are about to start counting those seven days. If there is no legal challenge to that new delimitation of constituencies, we will formally publish it.

Another key issue is updating our voter’s roll. There is a new threshold of people who have attained voting rights. They must be enrolled on the roll and those who have died must be removed.

Some may have moved from one constituency to the other, again we must ensure the new voting station they belong to is properly captured. The voters’ roll is one of the key things that we are looking at right now, to ensure that by election time we have a credible one. If that process is done, we are ready to hold elections. In terms of the law, there must be a time we are in a position to inform the Council of State to advise the King to dissolve parliament.

All this is done within the parameters of the law; we have certain prescripts that define what should happen and by when. Another important aspect is to ensure that we have a sound compliance framework with the respective timelines to ensure everything is done in time.

LT: Where are we now with the preparations for the elections?

Adv Maqutu: We are actively making fresh registrations. It is our priority and it’s all hands-on deck. There are various teams that are championing various aspects to ensure that we deliver that output.  We want to gravitate towards using the national identity documents in that process. We will ensure that our database and that of the Home Affairs ministry tally.

In the past, voters would get a card on registration. They would need to present the card on election day. However, the national identity card contains a number that doesn’t change. We want to use them to ensure that we don’t have incidents of duplication of voters. We are actively doing voter training workshops. The objective is that by the time parliament is dissolved, we will be ready. There are non-governmental organisations which are knocking on my door to help IEC in terms of the dissemination of information. They are also geared towards improving voter turnout. We have noticed that over the years voter turnout has been on the decline. We aim to turn the curve for people to start voting in large numbers in electing a government of their choice.

Low voter turnout is something that is really bothering this institution to the extent that we have scheduled a workshop to review a study that was undertaken in 2019.

We want to establish why we are having this low voter turnout. At the workshop we will unpack the recommendations and findings to better understand the situation. At this workshop we will also come up with solutions to the challenges identified by the study. We want people to vote, especially the youth. We are also depending on the media to help us disseminate this message in the national interest.

LT: What is your budget for this year’s elections?

Adv Maqutu: We have figures from the last election that we held in 2017 where the budget for National Assembly elections only was over M400 million. Now that we’re talking about combined elections, the budget will be more than that. We are expecting that it will be plus or minus M500 million. However, that is dependent on how parliament will view our submission. Since we are holding the referendum, which has never been held before, we expect a larger budget. For each election, it’s about M400 million, so if they are combined, it will be cheaper. However, the budget that was tabled recently in parliament where we were allocated around M300 million is short of what we are looking at. Nevertheless, we are hopeful that parliament will help us get more funds.

LT: It was said last year that the delimitation of constituencies was being stalled by the lack of funds. What is the current status regarding funds?

Adv Maqutu: We are busy with the delimitation of constituency boundaries and the processes are almost finished. We have the requisite finances to make sure that the process is completed.

The delays were based on the absence of commissioners, not funds. We had to pause because the actual legal people who should authorise the steps, making gazettes and legal documents were not around since we almost spent two years without a single commissioner.

LT: The Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t ended, are you ready for elections given the regulations that voters may need to adhere to?

Adv Maqutu: We are busy preparing. Covid-19 will not deter us from delivering credible elections. We are hoping that the elections do not become a super spreader.

If the pandemic continues on the current path (of low new infections), it considerably mitigates the risk of elections becoming a super spread. However, this is everyone’s responsibility to ensure the people get vaccinated. It mitigates the outcome of elections becoming a super spreader of the virus. We are banking on the whole notion of getting vaccinated, reaching herd immunity, implementing the basic protocols of washing of hands, wearing face masks, sanitising and maintaining social distancing.

If the weather is also permissive, we might use the outdoors with open tents where there will be better air circulation, as opposed to a classroom, which is more clustered. We are also banking on the weather.

LT: Do you think the current IEC leadership can achieve free and credible elections?

Adv Maqutu: I’m fortunate in that the core team that delivered credible free and fair elections in 2017 is the same team I am working with now. I will seek to ensure that the team secures all they need for them to do their job effectively. If history is a predictor of the future, I would say that we are poised to deliver free and fair elections and it’s all thanks to the team, not me.

 

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