IEC to deregister parties

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. . . 15 already struck off

RELEBOHILE TSOAMOTSE


MASERU – Some political parties face deregistration.Political parties must submit updated lists of paid-up membership to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) by today (Friday) to avoid deregistration. This follows Chief Justice Sakoane Sakoane’s ruling, instructing the IEC to conduct a compliance audit of political parties within six weeks.

As part of this audit, the IEC has contacted all political parties, requesting, among other things, an updated list of at least 500 paid-up members by the deadline of March 31. The commission is also conducting impromptu visits to the registered addresses of political parties to ensure compliance with the National Assembly Electoral Act.

While not all parties met the March 31 deadline, an additional five-day grace period has been granted, extending from April 1 to today. The extension was meant to cater for non-working days lost during the Easter holiday. The audit stems from a challenge by the human rights watchdog, Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), regarding compliance with sections 25(1c), 27(2), and 29(3) of the National Assembly Electoral Act of 2011.

Section 25(1) outlines the requirements for party registration, which state that an application must include a copy of the constitution, a declaration signed by 500 paid-up members, bank account details, and any other prescribed documents.

Section 27(2) addresses the cancellation of registration of political parties, stipulating that before the commission cancels the registration of a political party or an alliance, it must provide notice to the party regarding the proposed cancellation, allowing a 30-day period for written representations.

Additionally, the Act mandates the commission to conduct a hearing to consider evidence provided or representations made.Furthermore, Section 29(3) requires political parties registered with the IEC to annually provide their current paid-up membership to the commission.

In 2021, TRC filed a petition with the High Court, seeking to compel both the IEC and the Registrar General of Societies to enforce statutory obligations outlined in the National Assembly Act of 2011 and the Societies Rules of 1967.

TRC’s litigation stemmed from concerns about political parties’ persistent failure to comply with registration requirements and financial accountability obligations. They argued that political parties were violating laws pertaining to fund accountability, asserting that the commission lacked comprehensive data to verify paid-up memberships prior to registration under the Electoral Act.

TRC’s research revealed several irregularities, including the existence of non-authentic registered offices, inactive offices, absence of registered office bearers, failure to conduct elections in accordance with party constitutions, lack of authentic minutes from special or annual conferences, and the absence of properly documented audited reports and financial accounts.

These findings, along with other factors, led the TRC to suspect widespread non-compliance among political parties and raise concerns about the IEC’s oversight. Consequently, TRC initiated legal action to compel the commission to take appropriate measures.

In a ruling supported by Justices Realeboha Mathaba and Molefi Makara, Judge Sakoane granted TRC’s request and mandated the IEC, on February 29, 2024, to conduct a compliance audit within 45 days. The IEC has been instructed to take decisive action against non-compliant political parties, including deregistration.

The IEC now has until mid-April to ensure adherence to the court’s directive and is required to report to TRC accordingly.However, Advocate Lehlohonolo Suping, Director of Legal Services for the IEC, said the High Court ruling coincided with the commission’s ongoing monitoring of political party compliance, with many parties already being instructed to adhere to regulations.

Suping, in an interview with Public Eye this week, disclosed that IEC had already communicated with political parties, urging them to provide evidence of paid-up membership, as mandated by law. He further noted that the commission is presently conducting visits to party addresses to verify compliance.

Suping also said the IEC continuously monitors the internal elections of political party committees as well as developments regarding suspensions and expulsions of executive committee members. However, he argued that failure to account for finances alone does not justify deregistration.

“There is no provision in the law stating that parties failing to account for finances allocated to them, even by the commission, warrant deregistration,” Suping said.“A closer examination of Section 27 of the National Assembly Act reveals that a political party can only be deregistered when it fails to meet the conditions for initial registration,” he said.

Political parties draw campaign funding and political party funding from the consolidated fund. Campaign funding for parties’ elections is based on the number of votes received in the previous election, provided they meet the registration threshold. Parties registered with the commission but not participating in the last elections receive funding based on the registration threshold requirement.

Regarding political party funding, the law stipulates that a party participating in elections is entitled to annual funding from the consolidated fund, contingent upon the number of seats it holds in the national assembly.According to Suping, the commission has so far deregistered 15 political parties, reducing the total number of registered parties to 52.

One party has expressed its intent to deregister, but the process is pending completion. Apart from failing to meet registration requirements, Suping explained that parties can face deregistration during elections if they violate two codes of conduct: intimidation and violence, or engage in gross and systematic violations against other political parties.

However, Justice Sakoane noted that the IEC failed to provide a report or documents regarding political party compliance with TRC’s requests despite assurances made in a meeting. While IEC argued during the case that TRC did not specify which parties it wanted action taken against, Justice Sakoane observed a discrepancy with the commission’s earlier commitment to release documents as requested and to engage with party leaders to ensure compliance rather than resorting to deregistration.

“In the January meeting, the question of the IEC’s discretionary power in deregistration did not arise and was not debated,” Justice Sakoane wrote. “The reasonable action for the IEC should have been proactive, conducting internal audits of non-compliant parties and sharing the findings with TRC to avoid litigation.”

The judge dismissed the IEC’s argument about having discretion in cancellation and registration matters, asserting that its duty to enforce compliance renders its actions mandatory, not discretionary.

Furthermore, the judgment faulted the Registrar General for neglecting her duties under Rule 9 of the Societies Rules of 1967, which require societies to submit financial reports to the Registrar General for investigation and compliance verification.

“The IEC and the Register-General must keep their eyes and ears perpetually open to see and hear complaints about political parties that vow to be voted into parliament but do not comply with the laws enacted by the very parliament.

“Properly kept and regularly updated registers are indispensable tools in closing the gates to non-compliant political parties. The IEC and the Registrar-General have a mandatory duty to put in motion the statutory machinery of continuous assessment of compliance by political parties. Political parties are not above the law and should not be persuaded or reminded to obey the law,” Justice Sakoane wrote.

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