Merged polls would violate constitution, says IEC

Image: EPA/ KEVIN SUTHERLAND

A combined poll, that would see national, provincial and local government elections taking place on the same day, would violate the constitution, the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) said on Tuesday.

Various political parties, including the ANC and the EFF, have been calling for the merging of SA’s elections in a bid to cut costs, among other reasons. But to do so they may have to amend the constitution first.

South Africa’s national and provincial polls to elect MPs and members of the provincial legislatures for a five year term, take place on the same day every five years. Local government elections are usually held two and half years after the national and provincial polls, with councillors also elected for a five-year term.

Local government elections are due to be held in 2021, but doubts remain about whether they can take place due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The ANC and EFF have both suggested that the elections should be postponed, presenting an opportunity to merge all elections in 2024. This means the terms of current councillors will have to be extended by up to three years. However, the constitution states that elections must be held within 90 days of the expiry of the council’s terms of office.

During a meeting of the home affairs portfolio committee on Tuesday, IFP MP Liezl van der Merwe asked IEC officials about the possibility of merging elections. The commission was briefing the committee on the readiness for the 2021 local government elections.

IEC commissioner Janet Love said merging the elections should be a policy decision and could require a constitutional amendment. In other words, she said, parliament will have to make the call, not the IEC.

Pros and cons

“The question of combined elections is a policy decision in the hands of MPs. You could talk briefly among yourselves and come up with the pros and cons of a combined election. Just by way of example, a combined election means you focus your efforts once in five years on one day, that is potentially a very big advantage because of the cost to political parties, and the cost to the state, of an election,” said Love.

The disadvantage, however, is that “the possibility for you to go out to your constituency, to the electorate, then only happens once in five years rather that once in two and a half years. So it is a policy decision, not one the IEC itself would be in a position to take. Having said that, if the elections are combined, the reality is that the key challenge is going to be on timeframes”.

The five-year term of current MPs expires in 2024. If local government elections are held in 2021, the five-year term of national, provincial and local government will continue to be misaligned.

“The idea that you can extend the term of the existing local government to 2024, or shorten the period of the term of current parliament and provincial legislatures to 2021, would be difficult to do, and potentially fall foul of the constitution,” said Love.

The IEC also told MPs that it remains optimistic that local government elections will be held in 2021, despite the health challenges. “We remain hopeful that the pandemic will be behind us or under control next year ... We continue to prepare as much as we can,” said IEC chair Glen Mashinini.

The commission is also considering an e-election to drive down costs, and improve the counting and capturing of results. It said it would provide further details to MPs in due course.


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