The Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN) feels to curb disinformation and fake news on poll results on social media, the commission has taken a conscious decision to create and appoint a new corporate communication manager to develop a communication strategy and coordinate its response to the negative impact of fake news and misinformation. This week, New Era’s journalist Kuzeeko Tjitemisa (KT) caught up with ECN chief electoral and referenda officer Theo Mujoro (TM) to dissect issues on the November regional councils and local authority’s elections.
KT: There are a few months left before yet another local and regional authority election. Has ECN and its key stakeholders started with the preparations?
TM: Stakeholder engagement features prominently on the ECN electoral calendar for the 2020 regional council and local authority elections. Our first stakeholder engagement took place on 19th May 2020 with the health ministry. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the related declaration of the state of emergency, the commission identified MoHSS as a key stakeholder and initiated discussions with the ministry to provide input during the drafting of the ECN Covid-19 mitigation strategy.
In preparation for the 2020 elections, the ECN also initiated consultative discussions with other key stakeholders, including the Namibian police political parties as part of the Political Party Liaison Committee (PLC), consultative engagement with Civil Society Organisations and media. Also, the ECN is currently in consultation with relevant stakeholders regarding boundaries of certain constituencies and local authorities.
KT: A not-so-new phenomena of independent candidates has intensified competition on the Namibian political landscape. And we are back with the use of ballot papers. How would the expected increased list of the candidates affect these coming elections?
TM: There is, definitely, a noticeable trend of an increased number of independent candidates being nominated, and we expect this trend to increase during these elections. In this connection, ECN recently received new applications for the registration of five associations and one new political party.
Following the recent Supreme Court Judgement invalidating the use of EVMs without a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT), the ECN has reverted to the manual ballot paper system for the forthcoming elections. In fact, ECN has already conducted two by-elections at Otjiwarongo and Opuwo Rural constituency elections on 15th January 2020. The increase in the number of candidates contesting elections, coupled with the manual ballot paper system, only means a corresponding increase in the administrative work for the election officials and management.
For instance, prescribed procedures must be followed on receipt of new applications to register as associations and new political parties, in accordance with the provisions of the Electoral Act.
The increased administrative work includes, among others, ascertaining the objectives of a political party and organisations and ensuring they do not endanger the security of the State, sovereignty and integrity, the public safety, welfare or the peace and good order – and that they are not contrary to the laws of Namibia. In addition, the commission must ensure the prescribed amount in application fees are paid and that the applications are supported by a prescribed number of signatures of registered voters. Unlike the Presidential and National Assembly elections, where the same candidates appeared on the same ballot papers across all constituencies, the upcoming elections take place in a multiple number of constituencies and local authorities, and it means that the candidates and political parties or associations appearing in each constituency and local authority, respectively, will be different.
Additional new candidates also mean that the sorting and counting of the ballot papers will take time. However, scrutinising the list of supporters of the new applications by far demands the most administrative effort.”
KT: Statistics show that local and regional authority elections generally do not have a high turnout; yet, the elected people hold the key to service delivery at local and regional level. How does the ECN intend getting more voters to the polling stations?
TM: Indeed, a low turnout in local and regional elections is a world-wide phenomenon which is not fully explained. The ECN is currently busy identifying a suitable service provider to conduct a survey to determine the root causes of voter apathy and the lack of participation in elections, particularly in regional council and local authority elections.
ECN is mandated to provide voter and civic education to educate the public on their democratic rights and obligations, educate the electorate on the policies and procedures, and to promote inclusivity and mass participation in elections. To this end, the ECN has developed strategies to get more voters to polling stations. KT: Last year’s national elections witnessed serious disinformation and fake news campaign on, mostly, social media platforms. It contributed to the public’s questioning of the results. Are there any efforts from ECN’s side to curb such a scenario for 2020?
TM: Let me start by stating that the ECN takes the negative impact of disinformation and fake news campaign on elections very seriously. To mitigate the impacts disinformation and fake news on election-related matters, the commission has taken a conscious decision to create and appoint a new position of corporate communication manager to develop the ECN communication strategy and coordinate the ECN response to the negative impact of fake news and disinformation. In addition, the ECN endeavours to update its website and proactively populate it with the latest information as the official platform providing the official election-related information, including authentic election results.
KT: The credibility of the ECN was seemingly tainted by the 2019 general elections, resulting in a court challenge over the use of EVMs. One of the pertinent issues is the delay in announcing results. How is the ECN going to go about it this time around, considering that we are reverting to ballot papers and may take time to count manually?
TM: Firstly, please allow me to point out at this juncture that the delays in announcing the election results of last year were incorrectly attributed to EVMs. In fact, the delays were due to the transmission of election results from the collation centres to the Central Election Results Center (CERC). One of the main reasons for introducing the EVMs is the speed and accuracy of tabulating and aggregation election results. In contrast, the manual system is cumbersome and prone to human errors. Unlike the Presidential and National Assembly elections where election results are announced at national level, regional and local results are aggregated and announced at constituency and local authority collation centre levels during the upcoming elections. Therefore, the delay in announcing the election results using the manual paper ballots is not expected to be as pronounced in RC and LA elections as it would have been in Presidential and National Assembly elections.
KT: Can the ECN clarify the issue of political funding and when parties are expected to disclose their donors as per the Act?
TM: Section 140 outlines parties’ responsibilities in maintaining and disclosing financial records. Section 141 deals with disclosing donations to the party, and Section 154 to 161 deals with the allocation of public funding. To ensure that political parties comply with the relevant sections of the Electoral Act, the commission has recently taken an important concrete step by issuing new regulations relating to the declaration of assets and liabilities of political parties and the disclosure of foreign and domestic financing of political parties, organizations or other persons (Sections 139-142 of the Electoral Act). These Regulations were Gazetted on 18 November 2019, Government Gazette No. 7053 of 2019. However, the Regulations contain a subsection stating that the Commission must request the political parties in writing to submit the first declaration of assets and liabilities, and thereafter the parties will have to submit it annually 21 days after the official opening of the National Assembly. The political parties were informed in writing to comply, not only with new regulations (which were provided) but also to comply with other sections of the Act. The Electoral Act and the Regulations clearly states that any registered political party or registered organisation, any member of a registered party or registered organisation or any other person may receive up to the amount of N$4 million from a Namibian person or a Namibian institution and N$2 million from a foreign person or foreign institution and they must disclose such donation to the Commission. They may receive more than that amount, but then they have to disclose such donation to the public as well, by publishing a notice in two newspapers circulating in Namibia. In terms of the Electoral Act, 5 of 2014 and the Regulations issued on 18 November 2019, there is no “prescribed limitation” on the amount of donations any political party may receive.
Furthermore, in terms of the Electoral Act, 5 of 2014, section 188(1) (f), it is a criminal offence to contravene section 141. In terms of section 152(d), the Commission can also cancel the registration of a political party or organisation if it contravenes section 141. It should however also be noted that in terms of the Electoral Act, all political parties, organisations and person have until the end of August 2020 to comply with section 141.
Lastly, it is important to emphasize the fact that the ECN is not mandated by the Electoral Act or the Namibian Constitution to “investigate” any allegations of corruption - that is the mandate of the Namibian Police and the ACC.