“It was late in the afternoon of March 31 1994. Journalists were waiting impatiently for an announcement from international election observers. UN officials stated for the third time their argument that the observers should declare the March 28 elections for Uganda Constituent Assembly “free and fair”.
But the election observers avoided the phrase.
They had monitored only part of the electoral process; moreover, they knew that calling the election “free and fair” would preclude discussion of the problems [in the elections] they had discovered”.
Jorgen Elklit and Palle Svensson writing in the 1997 Journal of Democracy, wrote.
“In the end, the election in Uganda-which were no worse than many other elections that have taken place in emerging democracies-were not declared “free and fair.”
The duo add that the term “free and fair” has become a catchphrase for UN officials and political leaders and scholars alike, but what actually constitute a free and fair elections” is in itself vague.
Does the phrase mean only that the election was “acceptable” or does it imply something more?”
Free and fair—the term misinterpreted.
Dr Sabiti Makara, a political science don at Makerere University, argues that the term has been misinterpreted in Uganda; where observers arrive on the polling day, see voters cast ballots peacefully or with little or no interruptions, and conclusively write-off the election as “free and fair.”
“The term means conducting elections in total respect of the constitution; that the legal and structural grounds have been adhered to by all parties to a larger extent.
That every political party has declared the amount and sources of financing their campaigns, candidates fronted in the election are all qualified and that no state institutions or resources are used by the incumbent party to doctor victory, among other things,” he says.
For example, you cannot say elections will be free and fair if President Museveni has already started his campaigns, several months away to the polling date; money is exchanging hands in ruling party (NRM) to further ambitions yet other parties are on ground zero.
“That is tantamount to cheating votes and in any case if he won again I wouldn’t say it was free and fair elections,” Dr Sabiti explains.
Opposition political parties have stated for the umpteenth time that free and fair elections is possible in Uganda if the electoral environment changes.
Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) Secretary General for Research, Augustine Ruzindana, retraces the demand for electoral reforms two years to the last general election in 2011—with the formation of Inter-Party cooperation (IPC) to push for constitutional amendments and to institute electoral laws, which they thought would create a same level playing field.
“Our argument was [is] to deal with the environment in which we work as political parties. We proposed 10 benchmarks, among others, amendments in laws, Freedom of Expression and Assembly, non-discrimination, some of which were embraced but implementation failed.”
Specifically, Mr Ruzindana, also former Attorney General notes there was and still need to address the environment in which parties work—separation of the ruling party from the State and its resources—where they can compete fairly and equally without comparative or absolute advantage.
“All reforms suggested will only work if we achieve that,” he notes, “to ensure an equal playing field and if we do, perhaps, there is a possibility of a free and fair election.”
Every day that goes by, the call for reforms from donors, clerics, opposition parties, throw in Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), gains more momentum.
But most importantly, the Opposition, still want total adherence to the laws, the Presidential Elections Amendment Act 2009, Parliamentary Electoral Commission Elections Act and the Political Parties’ Amendment Act 2009, to govern electoral processes.
[Back then] IPC leaders, hailed the laws, but stressed the need to [now] reintroduce Presidential term limits, disband the Electoral Commission [EC], conception of “clean” voters register, among other propositions, concerns that are still generating a lot of back and forth arguments.
Nonetheless, the incumbent President Museveni, emerged victor with 68.38 percent; IPC flag bearer, Dr Kizza Besigye with 26 percent; Democratic Party’ Norbert Mao came third.
Yet again, with only 20 months to the next election, notwithstanding ongoing debate the question generating mixed reaction is whether electoral reforms can give NRM and Opposition same-level playing field?
May be yes. May be not
Uganda Peoples Congress secretary general, Prof Edward Kakonge, is of a view that the status quo cannot change.
“Twenty-eight years in power and you expect to beat him (Museveni) in his own game? In my view I think reforms [if any way implemented] are simply benchmarks for a democratic system but not for political change in Uganda—and that is not to suggest am frustrated.”
Referring to the recent confession by runaway spy master David Sejusa of the army having doctored 2006 election results using a makeshift EC, Prof Kakonge adds: “I just understand the kind of person we are dealing with. But in any case of reforms, the first is to have a new EC in place.”
EC spokesperson Jotham Taremwa, says having new electoral body is not a guarantee for free and fair elections.
He said that the Opposition does not want engage in meaningful discussion to address basics like civic education, voters empowerment, among others and have channeled all their efforts on calling for a new electoral body and power.
“How will this power come about? Off course, it’s through a process which these people think it is only our role yet not the case,” Mr Taremwa explained. “Yes, elections have sometimes been marred by a few glitches but they are not all our making. For example, what does the EC have to do with the issue of party financing or state institutions leaning to the ruling party?”
The EC chairperson, Eng Badru Kiggundu, was appointed in 2002 for the job and the Opposition think he was compromised long time ago.
So where are we?
In August last year the National Consultative Forum’ (NCF)-Legal and Electoral Affairs Committee, released a draft report detailing proposed reforms.
The NCF, constituted in 2012, is a composition of all parties but with the chairman nominated from a party with the most representation in parliament--in this case the National Resistance Movement (NRM).
The reforms include; a competent electoral system complemented by an electorate that is aware of their rights and obligations and political parties - able to articulate the public interest; a competent adequately resourced electoral body; and transparency of the electoral process, among others.
The Attorney General, Peter Nyombi, is expected to come up with a Bill on the reforms to be debated in Parliament.
The Opposition have also since come up with a basket of demands-reforms.
These include a new voters register, absence of security forces in the elections, new measures of monitoring the massive diversion of state funds to NRM campaigns, demarcation of electoral boundaries and need to agree on a new process which commands legitimacy and confidence in case results are disputed.
On top of pushing for 80 per cent funding for all parties, IPOD, also wants measures against continued the gerrymandering of electoral constituencies and slow process to create national identity cards.
But Crispy Kaheru of Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy (CCEDU), a civil society organisation promoting electoral transparency, says what needs to be done first is a massive campaign to restore Ugandan’s confidence in the electoral process.
“I cannot speak on what political parties exactly want, however, the aspiration of many Ugandans is to have credible electoral processes/reforms that bolster the confidence and trust of Ugandans in elections.”
The head of the European Union Delegation, Ambassador Kristian Schmidt, says it is “definitely positive” that there are some engagements on reforms so the Attorney General has a clear basis for drafting the Bill.
“The NCF is constitutionally mandated to discuss issues of national concern. Many of the NCF’s recommendations are in tune with the recommendations issued by the 2011 EU Electoral Observation Mission, and accepted by government.”
However, “Where we do have some concern is on the issue of timing,” Amb. Schmidt said in an email exchange. “The government, when agreeing to the EU observing the 2011 elections, undertook to consider and follow up on the mission’s recommendations. We are now more than half way to the next elections, and so far, very few of these recommendations have been implemented, despite this being a key priority in the political dialogue.”
Is a free and fair election possible in 2016?
The NRM party spokesperson, Ms Mary Karoro Okurut, says well as they welcome the debate on reforms for a fair election, the notion of “political change” mooted by Opposition is “just wishful thinking.”
But DP’s secretary general, Mathia Nsubuga, thinks otherwise that “nothing is impossible.”
“The problem why things don’t work is because of slow implementation of what we agree on.”