Friday July 25 2014

It is not easy to rig a referendum held under current Ugandan laws

By Beti Kamya-Turwomwe

While on a CBS FM show, Dr Kizza Besigye dismissed Uganda Federal Alliance’s drive for a national referendum on federalism, arguing that the referendum would be rigged, as elections have been. The purpose of this article is to argue that it is not easy to rig referenda held under Article 255(1) of the Constitution of Uganda.

As a pre-requisite for such referenda to be held, the Electoral Commission must verify and certify that 10 per cent of registered voters whose names appear on the National Voters’ Register, under polling stations indicated on their voter’s cards, signed the petition demanding for a referendum.

The promoter(s) of the referendum would have earlier marketed their viewpoint(s) to the people, and then got the converted, who have proof that they are registered on the National Voters’ Register, to endorse the petition. Usually, 50 per cent of registered voters turn up to vote, which means 10 per cent of registered voters equal 20 per cent of expected voter turn-up. This means referendum promoter(s) set off with a mandatory head-start of 20 per cent of estimated votes to be caste, all confirmed and certified by the EC as registered voters.

If promoters of electoral reforms had used their considerable influence to mobilise registered voters to endorse a petition for a national referendum on the reforms, they could have easily got 4,000,000 registered voters endorsing the petition. That would have provided concrete evidence on the number of registered voters who want the reforms, even if the NRM government were to undermine holding of the referendum, as is feared.

As there are only two sides in referenda, campaigners must choose one side only. In the case of federalism, anti-federalism opposition stalwarts Miria Matembe, Abdu Katuntu, Mugisha Muntu, etc., would campaign with President Museveni on the ‘No’ platform, while NRM federalists Vice President Edward Ssekandi, Kabakumba Matsiko and Okot Ogong would share the ‘Yes’ platform with opposition leaders Dr Besigye, Norbert Mao and Beti Kamya.

It is unlikely that Katuntu would collude with Museveni to rig the referendum – not that one is an angel, the other the devil, but that they come from competing camps and don’t trust each other.
Referenda create strange bed-fellows, who might loathe each other but get together for one night of expediency, then go back to their respective marital beds. So, instead of the ‘NRM Taskforce’, there would be the ‘Anti-Federal Taskforce’, probably chaired by President Museveni and deputised by Mr Katuntu. Do you, reader, see room for rigging here?

Referenda are not direct threats to Museveni’s hold onto power unless they were about him. His supporters who are federalists might vote federalism in a referendum but vote Museveni in an election, so he (Museveni) might see wisdom in not displeasing his federalist supporters by manipulating the referendum, but to keep his personal support intact - after all, it takes a while before referenda results take effect. Cases in point are the 2005 referendum, which voted in multi-partysm but the Movement Secretariat continued operating, while Kenya is still struggling to operationalise the results of the 2010 referendum that ushered in federalism!

Both sides of referenda must be fully funded by the State, as the 2000 and 2005 were. Besides, referenda are the only fora prescribed by the Constitution of Uganda, under Article 1(4), through which Ugandans can determine how they wish to be governed, just as elections are the only fora under which Ugandans can determine who will govern them.

Ms Kamya is the president, Ugandan Federal Alliance.