Members of Parliament (MPs) sitting on the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee yesterday rejected the Electoral Commission’s (EC) decision banning open public rallies ahead of the 2021 General Elections.
The legislators raised concern that the ban would be to the disadvantage of the candidates participating in the polls.
During a meeting attended by Justice minister Ephraim Kamuntu, Attorney General (AG) William Byaruhanga, and officials from EC, the MPs are asked government to consider declaring a State of Emergency so that the polls, whose “credibility” is being threatened by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, can be postponed.
The committee chaired by West Budama South MP Jacob Oboth-Oboth was interacting with the minister, the AG and the EC officials led by their chairperson Simon Byabakama following a heated debate on Prof Kamuntu’s statement on the floor of the House last week.
Political emotions in the country have traded high since mid last month after the electoral body, in its revised roadmap to the 2021 General Election, announced that aspiring candidates will have to campaign ‘scientifically’ as a measure to fight the spread of Covid-19.
Digital campaigns will include a process of candidates for President, Parliament and Local Governments soliciting for support majorly through televisions and radio stations, as well as via social media platforms.
The EC, in the same vein, banned the gathering of people at the polling stations at the time of counting votes, arguing that this can only be done in the presence of the candidate’s agents.
MPs questioned the legality of the decision by the EC to ban political rallies, arguing that this would abrogate some sections of the Presidential Elections Act, Parliamentary Elections Act and the Constitution.
“If it is about a pandemic, then it is supposed to be the Ministry of Health, not the EC. My Lord (referring to Justice Byabakama), if this election is discredited, nobody will remember the scientists you are basing on to ban rallies but it will be the EC, which you head,” Bugiri Municipality MP Asuman Basalirwa said.
Mr Basalirwa, who is also the current chairperson of the Interparty Organisation for Dialogue (Ipod), said the EC’s insistence to organise an election without mass rallies will be a violation of Articles 71 (internal processes of political parties), 103b (about the nomination of a presidential candidate) , and Sections 3 and 4 of the Presidential Elections Act.
Justice Byabakama had told the committee that the decision to ban the mass political rallies and opting for the digital campaigns, was informed by thorough consultations the EC had with the Ministry of Health on how the Constitutional obligation of holding elections in the first 30 days of the last 122 days of the term of office can be fulfilled.
“We consulted the Ministry of Health and the view was that you cannot enforce social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands during a mass campaign rally. On the advice of the Ministry of Health, the Commission thought it prudent that we ban these mass rallies and use other media channels” Justice Byabakama said.
Minister Kamuntu had also earlier on in his submission told MPs that the banning of the mass rallies was based on the issues of safety and security of the people, the legal binding on holding elections and the public expectations to have regular elections every five years.
But the MPs indicated that it is unfair for the EC to disconnect candidates at all levels from their potential voters because the physical appearance also matters in making choices.
They also said although there are more than 300 radio stations and dozens of TVs in the country, they are subject to the mission of their ownership.
The AG requested the Committee to allow him time to return with answers on the legal issues that were raised by the MPs.
But Ndorwa East MP, also shadow AG Wilfred Niwagaba weighed in, saying there is no need for time to look for answers because the “law is very clear”. He said outside the electoral laws, the banning of political rallies is a matter of infringing on human rights.
State of Emergency
Under Article 110 of the Constitution, the President in consultation with Parliament, can declare a State of Emergency in case there is a threat of external aggression, threat to security or economic life, and any measures necessary to secure public safety.
But in this case, a State of Emergency will affect the time for elections, meaning President Museveni would have to leave office on May 12 when his current term ends, handing over power to the Speaker of Parliament. Parliament’s life is extendable for a period of six months during a State of Emergency.
What some MPs say...
Abdu Katuntu (Bugweri County).
Can you envisage an election anywhere without public meetings? You should know that choosing a leader is not about listening to his or her voice alone. Some want to see how they express themselves.
Edward Otto Makmot (Agago).
There are so many countries that have postponed their elections this year. The Electoral Commission does not make the law but the minister, the AG and the MPs legislate. So bring a Bill for us to change the Constitution.
Annet Nyakecho (Tororo County).
The public is not ready for scientific elections and they are looking forward to those wonderful moments with their leaders. This is when I receive hugs from my voters, while others want to see how we dance.
Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda (Kira Mun.).
The EC says they are consulting stakeholders. Even the procurement of services is ongoing and we hear one of the candidates is the one selecting them. Are you organising an election for someone or for the people of Uganda?