Elections to be halted, but parliament to meet over crucial finance bill despite coronavirus restrictions

16 March 2020 - 15:43 By Andisiwe Makinana
The IEC will urgently approach the Electoral Court to postpone all scheduled by-elections as part of its response to the pandemic. File image.
The IEC will urgently approach the Electoral Court to postpone all scheduled by-elections as part of its response to the pandemic. File image.
Image: 123RF/ niyazz

More than 200 parliamentarians will be forced to gather in the National Assembly chamber to consider and pass the Division of Revenue Bill on Wednesday.

This is despite the nationwide ban on gatherings of more than 100 as one of the measures to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

The bill is important because it lays down how total government revenue should be divided and allocated between the spheres of government and within government.

The Electoral Commission, on the other hand, said it would urgently approach the Electoral Court to postpone all scheduled by-elections as part of its response to the pandemic.

The commission took its decision after the declaration of a national state of disaster by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday, and the subsequent introduction of a range of measures to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The measures announced include urging people to limit physical contact and prohibiting gatherings of more than 100 people.

“The election process involves relative close physical contact between election officials and voters, including the exchange of ballot papers and inking of thumbs.

“At the end of the voting process, ballot papers must be counted. When an infected voter has handled a ballot, indications are that active viruses will last for at least 10 hours. This will be yet another opportunity for cross-infection of officials conducting the counting process,” the commission said in a statement issued on Monday.

It said given heightened awareness and concerns over the pandemic, there was also a real possibility that significant numbers of voters would stay away from voting stations in upcoming by-elections, which would result in low participation levels that could undermine the freeness and fairness of elections.

“The commission is of the view that in the circumstances of the measures announced as part of the national response to the pandemic, the possibility of free and fair elections is incontrovertibly vitiated.”

Co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had earlier said she had been in contact with the IEC because the restriction measures had huge implications for that institution and its management of by-elections scheduled for this week and  next month.

“It means the way we deal with elections has to totally change,” she said.

Dlamini-Zuma said the IEC would be seeking from the court permission to extend the 90 days “so we can look at how we conduct elections”.

Municipal by-elections have to take place within 90 days after a municipal ward council seat becomes vacant due to death, expulsion or resignation of a ward councillor to get seats at the municipal level.

Parliament has cancelled two plenary sessions which were scheduled for the National Assembly this week, including the session for questions to the deputy president which was scheduled for Thursday.

The assembly will, however, go ahead with the Wednesday session to consider the Division of Revenue Bill and, according to parliamentary sources, the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) will sit on the same day to consider the Gauteng government's intervention in Tshwane.

That NCOP has already cancelled the public aspect of its flagship Taking Parliament to the People programme, which was scheduled to start in Gauteng on Monday until Friday. The programme includes site visits and public meetings to look into progress made on service delivery and development.

Parliament's leadership is expected to announce the way forward after a special meeting between its presiding officers and the whips of political parties scheduled for Tuesday.