Political stability vital for free, fair elections
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OPINION: We should continue to strive for political tolerance where no political contestant is stopped from campaigning, their campaign activities are not interfered with, their campaign materials are not damaged or destroyed, writes Mawethu Mosery.
The final days in preparation of a general election and or by-elections are crucial to ensure that there is free political activity and access to voters without interference.
It is also crucial that political stability and peace is visibly felt by all during this period.
A peaceful environment promotes voter activity and a better voter turnout at the polls. In our research studies with the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), it is evident that where voters have higher safety and security satisfaction, they are more likely to go out and cast their vote.
What is tolerance, then? Simply put, it is an individual or entity putting up with differing views, ideas and utterances. Tolerance is required in all aspects of life - not only in politics.
Do we have tolerance towards other cultures, racial groups, ethnic groups, gender, disability, faith etc? Are you able to keep to your space and not to interfere and undermine the person with differing views to yours?
In the environment of politics, there is a lot of literature on political tolerance. All literature considered, it remains that we need to create free political space for all ideas and views to be shared and debated.
More importantly political tolerance during election campaigns is allowing free political activity for all political parties and individuals contesting an election. They must be free to campaign and reach voters everywhere in the geo-space of that election.
In our South African democracy, we have coined so many terms for political intolerance like “no go areas” (in isiZulu alubhadwa) “political hot spots” etc, as if these were normal in a functioning democracy.
We should continue to strive for political tolerance where no political contestant is stopped from campaigning, their campaign activities are not interfered with, their campaign materials are not damaged or destroyed.
It is possible that we can achieve a peaceful election, not an election that has a prefix: a relatively peaceful election.
We have the code of conduct in our electoral laws which seeks to promote good and positive conduct among election contestants.
Note that I use election contestants to mean both candidates of political parties and independent candidates, including political parties.
I emphasise this because in other areas they show tolerance towards political parties and candidates of political parties, but change to the extreme of political intolerance towards independent candidates contesting the election.
Tolerance as indicated above is not only towards persons who are candidates but also to their activities and their supporters.
The code seeks to promote an environment where there is even co-operation among political contestants to minimise a chance of an incident to trigger tensions and intolerance.
The code of conduct is supported by actions of many state actors so that we ensure that as a country, we maintain a peaceful environment for the elections. This includes commitment by political parties and all their supporters and independent candidates and their supporters to adhering to the code of conduct.
The code protects the Electoral Commission from unfair criticism that is also baseless. The latter puts the question to so-called opinion and or view.
The electoral court has sufficient powers to deal with infringements to the code and can be approached directly by political parties and by entities in public interest.
The court may, where it finds infringement impose remedies and penalties including the following; warning, fine, forfeiture of deposits, prohibit that person or party from a range of political activities, to list but a few, media appearance; holding meetings; canvassing for votes; erecting billboards or posters; distributing campaign material; election advertising; receiving funds; entering voting stations; reducing votes cast in their favour; disqualifying candidates; and cancelling registration of that party.
The electoral court has in the past made its orders on political intolerance and intimidation which is also considered a form of intolerance.
In a court case in the Mbabazane municipality in KZN in a by-election in 2009, where a political party engaged in acts of intimidation and possibly violence midday during voting day, the court ruled in broad strokes that the election was not free and fair and set aside the outcome of the by-election which the alleged instigating political party had won.
In another case in 2019, the electoral court found on the matter of unfair utterances or political campaigning that it was wrong, but the electoral commission had over-stepped its jurisdiction.
The role of the Electoral Commission was curtailed to an investigation with an intention to approach the electoral court or facilitate mediation.
What, then, is the role of the electoral commission when the code of conduct is infringed? The role of and function of the commission should be focused on the primary duty to deliver elections and creating an environment for free and fair elections to take place.
This suggests that if the peaceful, free political space is interfered with and infringing on the code, other state actors must take responsibility.
Principally the security forces, mainly the police, must intervene to create stability and also arrest and deal with infringement criminally.
The provisions to deal with these in this fashion are provided for under prohibited conduct in our electoral laws.
Among the prohibitions, there is the following: contravention of the code, undue influence, prevention gaining reasonable access to voters, interference with impartiality and independence of the electoral commission, unlawfully preventing holding political meetings/demonstrations/events, impersonation, intentional false statement, infringement of secrecy and obstruction or non-compliance with directions of the electoral commission.
The SAPS is sufficiently trained by the electoral commission and internal training unit to police and investigate these provisions.
The NPA has been part of the training sessions and stands ready to prosecute these matters. Therefore the commission is left with one role - to rebuild peace where it has been interfered with and subject contestants to a mediated resolution and good conduct going forward.
The province of KZN has moved ahead of the country to also create a structure jointly with the IEC to intervene where there are areas of political tensions and intolerance. The committee where all contesting political parties seat is called the Multi Party Political Intervention Committee.
This is in keeping with the province of KZN where political intolerance has deprived the province of peaceful elections since our democracy.
Since 2011, the MPPIC was established so that the citizens don’t take peaceful elections for granted but know that we must continue to work for peace co-existence and tolerance in our democracy.
Noted in recent times is a difficulty in intervening in the new phenomenon of intolerance within political parties.
This appears to be best dealt with by the political party itself and or by the arm of the state as pure criminality irrespective of players in those incidents.
There is a high demand for civic, political and democracy education to equip our citizens to participate in electoral democracy while building peace and political tolerance.
The incidents of last weekend must not be tolerated by our citizens and state actors. Equally so, we must also not accept service delivery protests that interfere with other people’s rights in a democracy. Furthermore, proactive utterances and conduct should equally be avoided.
More importantly in today’s environment, people are exposed to mis-information and disinformation on our media platforms and believe it to be fact and true. These unverified stories are sometimes a source of consternation when publicised unverified and unsubstantiated.
Political tolerance is a critical ingredient to legitimate success in an election and for the country to have peaceful free and fair elections.
Lest we forget that electoral democracy is a contest to win votes and elected office to control and distribute state resources.
It is therefore full of competitive activities and consequently may have tensions and it then remains how we handle those tensions.
* Mawethu Mosery is the IEC’s deputy chief electoral officer responsible for voter outreach and communication.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.