Cape Town — DA leader Helen Zille questioned on Monday the ability of the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) to run free and fair municipal elections in 2016.
"[The] Independent Electoral Commission itself -- once one of our most robust independent state institutions -- is under serious threat of becoming another ANC lapdog..." she warned in her weekly SA Today newsletter published on the Democratic Alliance's website.
Zille said the results of this year's national and provincial elections showed the ruling African National Congress was vulnerable in three Gauteng metropolitan municipalities, and even more so in Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, centred on Port Elizabeth.
"Suddenly, after May, four more metros -- in addition to Cape Town -- are in play for 2016," she said.
"In Gauteng, the ANC is looking extremely vulnerable in the province's three metros: Johannesburg (52.3 percent), Tshwane (49.3 percent) and Ekurhuleni (55 percent)."
A DA victory in one of these metros in 2016 would be a "tipping point" for the province.
In Nelson Mandela Metro, only eight percentage points now separated the ANC and the DA.
In her newsletter titled "Can we have confidence in a free and fair 2016 election?" Zille said a sinister picture was emerging of an ANC determined to prevent any further losses through the ballot box, and to reverse the tide of the party's declining support.
"They are increasingly prepared to subvert our democracy to ensure this," she said.
Warning signals included attempts by deployed cadres in the Municipal Demarcation Board to merge Midrand -- the only DA-run municipality in Gauteng -- with surrounding ANC-dominated municipalities.
Another was the deployment of SA Democratic Teachers' Union members as electoral officers to run polling stations earlier this year, "after Sadtu instructed its members to do everything possible to ensure the re-election of the ANC".
Zille said the ruling party was seeking to control the IEC.
"It goes without saying that if the IEC becomes an extension of the ruling faction of the ANC, we can kiss free and fair elections goodbye," she said.
"Of course this trend is likely to be disguised as something else: certain voting stations will 'run out' of ballot papers. Certain 'zip-zip' machines will be defective. Certain polling stations will open late, so that people get tired of waiting in queues and leave.
"There will be targeted electricity 'black outs'."
Zille said this trend had been evident at some Cape Town polling stations during the May elections this year.
"When it happens in marginal wards in a local election, it can alter the outcome. And when this happens in strong DA-supporting wards, it can alter the overall proportionality of the result."
Zille also questioned whether the ANC would actually step down were her party to win new municipalities in 2016.
"This is not a far-fetched question. The DA is currently locked in a court battle to force the ANC to relinquish power in the Oudtshoorn municipality, after the ANC lost its majority in by-elections in August last year."
The IEC's stock answer to such problems was to tell the DA to take the matter to the Electoral Court.
"We believe this is ducking the issue. According to the Constitution, the IEC's mandate is to 'manage elections' and 'ensure that those elections are free and fair'."
But elections could not be free and fair if the ruling party abused its power.
"It is the IEC's job to ensure that they do not."
This meant ensuring free and fair registrations, protecting voters from intimidation, preventing the ruling party from abusing state resources for its election campaign, and ensuring that the SA Broadcasting Corporation was unbiased.
It also meant ensuring non-aligned electoral officials who would reliably oversee the election.
"For the first time in 2016, these issues are going to be make-or-break for the election outcome. And it is crucial now for us to apply our minds, and develop our systems, to ensure that we can still say South African elections are substantially free and fair," Zille said.
"Given the current trajectory, I doubt it will be possible to rely on the IEC alone to do so."