The Electoral Commission (EC) this week, June 16, announced that owing to the rising number of cases of Covid-19 in the country and the measures in place to try and contain the spread of the virus, the 2020-2021 general election campaign was going to be disrupted as all other life in Uganda has been by the virus.
The EC said traditional outdoor mass campaign rallies would not be permitted.
All candidates, from the presidential to the local village level, would have to find some other way to reach the electorate with their messages. The news media and the new virtual digital media were alternatives suggested by the EC.
There was an immediate outcry from the political Opposition and some in the media. Some Opposition parties and leaders claimed this was yet another ploy by the NRM government to rig another election.
Others argued that even if there was no malicious intent by the EC, the very fact of restricting the campaigns to the media would favour candidates and groups with much money.
Also, since most radio stations are owned by NRM Cabinet ministers, MPs or NRM sympathisers, this would favour NRM candidates.
From the general public came concerns ranging from remote parts of the country with weak radio signals to many poor households that do not have radio sets. Even in the urban centres, said others, many people are unable to afford the Internet data to keep up with campaign messages posted on social media.
This is a story with many angles. So first to the challenges facing a media-only campaign.
The main complication is in the ratio of candidates to television and radio airtime. Given the current more than 400 Members of Parliament, the assumption would be of an average of about four candidates contesting for each parliamentary seat. That would mean about 1,700 candidates across the country.
No matter how well time on radio and TV is allotted, it is difficult to see how each of these candidates will be scheduled to appear on any one of the country’s 200 radio stations.
To accommodate all presidential, parliamentary and LC candidates on radio and TV would require that all regular programming such as music and sports shows is suspended for the duration of the election campaign.
Newspapers can get around this by increasing the number of pages in each edition, but that would obviously require that these additional pages are paid for.
In general, the election campaign would turn the media’s content into advertorials and for those concerned about media independence, this would be an issue.
A second complication pointed out by media analysts and politicians was that of a conflict of interest.
How willing would the NRM owner of a radio station in Mbale or Jinja who happens to be an MP, be to grant airtime on this radio station to an FDC or People Power candidate for the same parliamentary seat?
The only way this would happen is if the EC by law requires that all radio and TV stations open up to all contenders, regardless of political affiliation.
And now to the positive side of this radical new campaigning format. In a sense, Uganda was overdue for an upgrading of its political campaigning.
As with other areas of life such as students studying from home and businesses and organisations holding meetings by video-conference, the Covid-19 pandemic has speeded up the adoption of technologies that needed adopting.
Amama Mbabazi’s 2016 Go Forward campaign that opened with a YouTube video in June 2015 was ahead of its time in this regard.
At the time, Mbabazi was seen as being elitist and out of touch with the ordinary Ugandan with this YouTube video; now whoever seeks the presidency will have to record a video for distribution on YouTube.
In the lead up to the 2016 election, President Museveni warned Ugandans against forwarding divisive videos on the WhatsApp social messaging app, an indication that even four years ago the technology was in place for an electronic election campaign.
The long-term effect of this will be to cause a major uptick in the use of social media in the country and the wider Internet.
Cut out of the campaign
A general election campaign conducted almost exclusively via the media means that traditional populism stunts such as noisy crowds, candidates dancing on campaign stages and platforms, distributing of T-shirts, booze and sugar are cut out of the campaign.
This will be the most on-message election campaign in the last 25 years. It will favour the more policy- and issues-oriented candidates and disadvantage popular and populist candidates who thrive on gimmick rather than on substance.
Along with this, the restricted campaign will favour some of the minor presidential candidates such as Muhammad Kibirigye Mayanja in 1996, Aggrey Awori in 2001, Dr Abed Bwanika in 2011 and 2016, Beti Kamya in 2011, and the late Maj Gen Benon Biraaro and Joseph Mabirizi in 2016.
The perception of Ugandan campaigns has been around the optics of crowds: the larger the crowds, the more the candidate was thought of as being a serious contender.
Candidates with a compelling campaign message but unable to attract large crowds were often ignored both by the media and the public.
The 2020-2021 campaign format will also cut out one of the most persistent challenges in Ugandan elections – President Museveni’s overwhelming advantages of incumbency and use of State resources.
Where in the past the presidential helicopter came in handy, making it possible to hold rallies in three of Uganda’s regions on the same day, that is removed from the picture.
Finally, the fact of campaigning entirely via the media has the effect of strengthening the more substantial side of Ugandan society.
Since the 1996 campaign, there has been a general view or assumption that the more urbanised and educated the person, the more likely they were to support the Opposition and the more rural-based and the less educated a person, the more likely they were to vote for Museveni.
This view was reinforced in 1998 with Nasser Sebaggala’s election victory as Kampala mayor.
Mocked by the more elite residents over his broken English, Sebeggala turned this into a strength, pitting the urban, slum-dwelling common man against the more elite minority.
Ever since 1998, it became the standard that elite and elitism were not vote-winners and whoever hoped to do well had to target the “masses”.
This was the factor behind the arrival of Col Kizza Besigye on the scene in 2001.
The rationale for the recent pinching by the NRM of activists from People Power such as Full Figure, Buchaman, Catherine Kusasira, Ashburg Kato and others was that they would help reach the Kampala slum and “ghetto” youth.
A general election campaign that cuts out the most rural communities from the messaging and candidates, loses the NRM some of its core base.
If such a campaign favours the more press- and social media-savvy candidates and the more urban-based audiences are almost fully reached, then conversely it favours the Opposition.
In other words, rather than complain about the new campaign format, the Opposition should welcome it and rush to take advantage of it.
The EC’s new campaign guidelines give the Opposition the best chance it has had in a general election in 40 years since the 1980 election, which was the last general election in which a degree of the elite was dominant.
In summary, inconvenient as this particular general election campaign season will be for all candidates and parties involved, the most positive long-term effect it will have on Ugandan politics is return the country to a degree of quality, bring back the “elite” in politics and, by that, produce a better Parliament in 2021 and even a higher-calibre public discourse and life.