Civic group blasts electoral body

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MASERU — A local pro-democracy civic group has accused the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of failing to educate its polling officers and party agents about their role ahead of last weekend’s by-elections.
The Lesotho Council of NGOs (LCN) said the failure by the IEC to educate its officers had resulted in chaotic scenes at polling stations as officers and party agents clashed over their roles.
Speaking at a press briefing yesterday, the LCN’s democracy and human rights commissioner, Khotso Lehloka, said the IEC had been found wanting last Saturday.
“We believe the IEC did not do its job,” Lehloka said.
“The polling officers and party agents were not properly trained, according to our observation.”
The confusion triggered fierce arguments between polling officers and party agents over the classification of ballots.
Lehloka said even presiding officers could not resolve the disputes among the polling officers and party agents “because they too did not understand fully what should happen”.
Several election observers for the by-elections in Hololo, Mpharane and Sebapala constituencies said polling officers and agents could not agree on which ballots were spoiled and which ones were tendered.
They only agreed on the valid ballots.
A spoiled ballot is identified by lack of an official mark on the ballot paper which is the IEC stamp.
It is also a ballot which has not been marked or one on which a voter has put a mark against more than one candidate, according to the IEC rules.
A spoiled ballot is declared invalid once polling officers and party agents agree that it is spoiled.
However, a tendered ballot is one whose validity is in dispute.
This ballot is disputed because a voter could have put a mark on an area that is not reserved for a candidate but at a place where one could reasonably conclude that he was voting for that candidate.
The tendered ballot has a 50-50 chance of being declared valid by the courts of law in the event that the electoral dispute ends up in court.
The observers alleged that polling officers from the IEC had clashed with party agents after they insisted on putting the spoiled and tendered ballots in the same envelope.
The LCN’s democracy and human rights co-ordinator, ’Mabolae Mohasi, said the ballots were classified in three categories — valid, tendered and spoiled.
Mohasi said putting the tendered and spoiled ballots together could complicate a court case if there was a dispute that ended up in court.
“The court would find it difficult to say which ballot is disputed and which one is not,” Mohasi said.
“Putting them together is totally wrong,” she said. 
Mohasi said some polling officers appeared to be studying for the first time the election manuals prepared by the IEC at the polling stations.
“Out of that confusion some polling officers started turning to some observers for guidance,” she alleged.
The LCN also raised concern over the poor voter turn-out in the three by-elections.
Only 12 725 people out of the 30 592 registered voters bothered to cast their votes in the three constituencies last Saturday.
This represents 41 percent of all registered voters.
It also means over 17 000 ignored the polls and stayed away in a worrying development for Lesotho politics.
However, the LCN said the elections were generally free and fair.
The NGO said it will release a report on the polls before the end of the week.
Contacted for comment, IEC commissioner, Malefetsane Nkhahle, admitted that things could have been done better.
Nkhahle said the IEC was fully “aware of the challenge” they faced in running the polls and were trying to find a means to deal with the problem.
“This continues to be a challenge to the IEC,” Nkhahle said.
“We are planning to engage the Ministry of Education to provide us with teachers who will conduct the training programme.
“We are aware that we need experts who will train our people to our satisfaction.”
Nkhahle said the IEC had not yet received a formal complaint from the LCN on the conduct of the elections.

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