Doubt has been cast over the credibility of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to run free and fair elections in Tlokwe, following a ruling by the Electoral Court in Bloemfontein on Tuesday to reverse the IEC's decision to disqualify six independent candidates in Tlokwe last week, ahead of this week's second by-elections.
"The IEC became a major political player in these by-elections. As a result of the ruling they have suffered serious damage and it will take a lot for them to be seen to be independent," said Chris Hattingh, the Democratic Alliance (DA) leader in the province .
The IEC has subsequently been given a court order to investigate why its official, John Mokodi, disqualified candidates who met the required criteria of 50 nominations. Among those disqualified are two of the 14 councillors expelled from the ANC after taking part in a vote which ousted Tlokwe mayor Maphetle Maphetle in favour of the DA's Annette Combrink.
Three wards in Tlokwe will be contested in Wednesday's by-elections. The ANC say they are confident of clinching victory.
At least 13 000 voters are expected to turn up for the elections. This despite the Electoral Court in Bloemfontein ordering on Tuesday evening that five out of the nine by-elections in Tlokwe be postponed.
This was after the court heard an application by five independent candidates who were disqualified from taking part in the by-elections by the IEC. A sixth by-election, in Ward 13, was earlier postponed after an out-of-court settlement.
Late on Tuesday, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe told party volunteers they should not be discouraged by the postponement as it afforded them the opportunity to focus all their energy on the three wards, six, 18 and 26.
"Go to every family and encourage them to vote for the ANC," he said. Voting stations are expected to open 9am.
Doubt cast over IEC
The IEC, however, has many questions to answer following Makodi's disqualification of candidates ahead of the country's fourth national elections. The commission has been accused of blocking independent candidates' registration in a bid to improve the chances of winning for the ANC.
The DA also claims that during special votes on Tuesday, before the court ruling, voting stations did not have voting booths. The opposition also accused ANC members of handing out food parcels to voters, despite the presence of IEC officials. The DA has since filed a complaint with the IEC over the matter.
Political analyst in the North West Andre Duvenhage said the perceived "high standards" of the IEC have been toppled by this case.
"Although there is no proof that the IEC is playing at the hands of political parties, in politics everything is possible. It would be unfortunate for the 2014 elections and the entire democracy of the country if they are carrying out wishes of certain parties," he said.
Duvenhage warned that the Tlokwe municipality has an incredibly unstable political environment and that additional influences will not further sink the municipality into a crisis.
The IEC did not comment by the time of publishing.
ANC remains positive
The ANC in North West remained positive that the IEC will carry out free and fair elections both in Tlokwe and during the 2014 elections. "Obviously the court ruled in favour of democracy and we are certain that the IEC will take full responsibility of their mistakes and move forward with the business of the elections," said Kenny Morolong, spokesperson for the ANC in the North West.
Morolong said the party refuses to let this incident doubt the commission's commitment to fair elections, claiming that a similar incident happened to the ANC in 2011 where candidates in seven wards did not comply with registration requirements.
"What matters now is that the independent candidates have won. The IEC will continue to exhibit its high standards going forward," he said.
Referring to Tlokwe's legacy, Duvenhage said the municipality is very racially and politically divided. "It is the historical symbol of the Afrikaner; divided into the east, which is comprised of the old city town with a strong traditional DA following. The west is the black community, which has an 80% ANC following."
Because of these demographics, the ANC has always been guaranteed a symbolic victory. Although the DA and some independent candidates have posed a threat to the ANC, Duvenhage argued that it still has a guaranteed victory.
"The ANC is using state resources to campaign; they are handing out food parcels, signing people up for grants, giving away a house here and there. The DA cannot compete with that."
The ANC needs to win at least five of nine wards to become the majority. And it is possible that ousted mayor Maphetle Maphetle will be reinstated the same way he was removed, by being voted out.
The former mayor was voted out amid corruption allegations against him. He was ousted in two consecutive council meetings – in December 2011 and in July 2013 – following a forensic investigation.
Brewing internal conflict
Following the controversy of Maphetle, the past few months have seen the ANC retracting a few of its decisions, namely the incident in which the party fired 14 of its councillors after they voted against the ANC mayor, which saw Combrink take over. Less than a month later they were all re-instated.
Duvenhage has warned of the brewing conflict within the ANC as certain regions favour certain ANC leaders. He said the fact that Tlokwe has had three mayoral changes in one year is a symptom of the instability in the ANC.
Meanwhile, the emergence of a strong culture of independent candidates is said to pose a threat to both the ANC and the DA. The disgruntled or expelled members of the ANC pose more of a threat when they stand as independent candidates, than with the opposition.
In the first by-election in August, an independent candidate came a close second place to the ANC in Ward 9. Kgotso Ratikoane rendered the ANC's win in Ward 9 in Tlokwe a tight one as he became the second favourite with 504 votes to the ANC's 738 (a difference of 234 votes). He beat even an organised DA.
"Independent candidates are proving to be popular in the Tlokwe area and this year we have more than ever before. But the ANC wants to win at all costs," said Duvenhage.
With only three wards going to the polls, it is uncertain when the elections will be concluded. – Additional reporting by Sapa