DA federal council chair Helen Zille’s ambitions of having a virtual elective conference could be dashed, as some party leaders prepare to oppose the plan when it is tabled to the party’s federal executive.
Zille and DA interim leader John Steenhuisen have started consulting tech experts on the feasibility of the idea, but some party leaders have told News24 that the virtual congress would give Steenhuisen – who is contesting to be the DA leader – an unfair advantage.
Speaking to News24, Zille said they are considering having decentralised venues, where 50 persons can meet and participate in smaller groups. This is due to restrictions on large gatherings as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Technology offers so many options. There are also processes that allow a queuing system to speak, that can be updated once a person has spoken. We are slowly working towards it. We have our first online meeting of 300-plus delegates on May 29, so that will be crucial to see what teething problems arise,” she said.
However, three leaders on the federal executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told News24 that they would not support the idea. The policy conference is expected to take place in September, while the elective conference will take place in October.
One leader said a virtual conference would place Steenhuisen’s contenders at a disadvantage.
The leader added that a virtual conference would leave the election vulnerable to manipulation.
“There are many gaps to this proposal. An election of this magnitude cannot afford to be a pilot project. Given the disaster of a year we had in 2019, we can’t risk anything that would lead to questions around lawfulness and legitimacy,” the leader said.
News24 understands that former DA youth leader Mbali Ntuli and Gauteng leader John Moodey are expected to resume their campaign to be DA leader in the coming weeks. The two suspended their campaign activities as a result of Covid-19.
A provincial leader told News24 that a virtual elective conference would exclude many delegates.
“For the first time, you will have a number of people from branches and you want to give them the same participation. There is also the challenge of resolutions, which must be deliberated, adopted or rejected. I cannot see a deliberation of more than 3,000 people happening on a virtual system. Logistically, it’s impractical. You will run into all kinds of technical glitches,” said the provincial leader.
He added that he did not see DA structures agreeing to the proposal, adding that he would raise his concern when it was finally taken to the federal executive next month.
Another party leader, who sits on both the federal council and the federal executive, said preparations for an elective conference had been under way when President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster.
“We were still busy with the annual general meeting and we had to stop. There are processes that are outstanding that must lead the congress. If the proposal is that we use the same data from the last congress, we will go against our constitution. I would not support that. The party is functioning. John has been doing well as interim leader. I don’t think we should rush,” the party leader added.
Zille, however, said processes should be concluded.
She conceded that the party may have challenges during debates on resolutions.
“If necessary, we can separate an elective congress from a deliberative congress, as some other parties do throughout the world,” she said.
In the US, the Democratic Party is also gearing up for its first virtual presidential nominating convention this August.
One party member said the only way a virtual conference would work was if the party made the agenda of the congress short, only discussing key resolutions.
“The most important part of an elective conference is the voting. At the elective congress, you look at constitutional amendments. The core constitutional ones can be deferred to Fedex. The elective congress is so that those who are contesting would want it to happen before the local elections.
“Any leader who emerges has far stronger internal legitimacy than an interim elected by a smaller structure. We just need to get this out of the way to focus on the elections,” said the high-ranking party member.
While in conversation with Steenhuisen on Tuesday, DA parliamentary chief whip Natasha Mazzone said a virtual conference would also serve as a cost-cutting measure, adding that it would be convenient for the party and its delegates.
Explaining the logistics, Zille said its team of technology experts would reduce the online voting options to two different platforms, both of which accommodate the single transferable voting system the DA uses.
“It also, of course, has to ensure the secrecy of the ballot. It works on codes being randomly distributed to registered voters for the election, in a secure manner, and then the minute a code is used to vote secretly, the code gets cancelled and no one can use it again. Then the results are tallied, according to the single transferable vote system. It is actually reasonably simple,” she said.