The challenge with Uganda’s elections

Elections are a democratic process for eligible citizens to choose individuals/parties to represent their interests. The choice could also be on accepting or rejecting a proposition, like in the case of referenda.

It is important to note that Uganda has generally been holding regular presidential, parliamentary and local government elections since the promulgation of the 1995 Constitution, every five years, with the exception of the LCI and LCII elections.
But the freeness of elections in Uganda has come under scrutiny. The cost of participating in elections, for example, is prohibitive. To get nominated for a parliamentary seat, one has to pay Shs3m.

Election periods are often fraught with tension, intimidation, and threats that at times breed violence. Whether elections in Uganda are fair can be answered by the number of court challenges that happen after each election. Presidential elections have been challenged in court thrice since 2001, with the 2011 one touching off a deadly wave of Walk-to-Work protests.

In 2016 alone, more than a third of the MP results were challenged in courts of law. Since 2016, Uganda has had about 35 by-elections, and more than 25 of these are back in the courts of law for one reason or another.

Research World International found that about 45 per cent of Ugandans actually do not believe that elections can lead to change of presidential power. When people begin to feel that democracy doesn’t deliver, then its legitimacy becomes difficult to defend – and that is what is happening.

Interest in elections has grown exponentially while faith in elections has declined terribly. Now you have an average of about eight persons running for presidential; six for a Parliament; and 11 for a local government seat. But you also have only about three out of every 10 Ugandans coming out and voting – especially during by-elections and local government elections.

We have elections that are akin to security operations. Each of the recent elections has seen security agencies deployed to play different roles. In some elections, security personnel campaign for candidates. In other cases, they ‘spy’ on the electoral management body, while in other cases, they wrestle with the electorate. Keeping law and order during elections is only a pleasant exception on their part. The current system is such that elections are an affair of the rich gang.

Half of the electorate (about 8 million people) cannot afford three meals a day, yet you have to pay handsomely to run for any elective position. In 2016, for instance, at Parliamentary level, about 50,000 people collected nomination forms, but only about 2,500 returned the forms with the requisite money – to run for about 450 positions.

While the world is moving to secure voters’ privacy and confidentiality, Uganda is still conducting elections by way of lining-up at the Local Council I and II levels. While there is a global shift to encourage citizen participation, open governance and public scrutiny of elections, you have situations where media and election observers are obstructed from following electoral processes.

You have voter educators being casually banned. You have a situation where the credibility of the national voters’ roll (a cornerstone of free and fair elections) continues to be a sticking issue. You have elections (LCI and LCII) conducted, but whose results remain unpublished and ungazetted as required by the law.

After elections, only a handful of MPs make an effort to visit their constituencies. MPs habitually only return to their constituencies during the last six months of their term and rarely respond to the legislative demands from their electorate. Last year, 85 per cent of Ugandans asked their MPs not to amend the Constitution (to remove presidential candidates’ age limits), but 75 per cent of the MPs voted to lift the presidential age limits. The culture of “winner-take-all”, political exclusion, impunity and social divisions continue to undercut representative democracy. To make elections work again, we have to fix these and many other issues. We have to fix the credibility of the electoral management body and of the voters’ roll.

We have to strengthen public scrutiny of elections, streamline the role of security agencies in elections and strategically integrate relevant technologies in elections. Above all, we have to make deliberate efforts to socialise values such as integrity, trust, honesty, and confidence. We can’t trust government alone to do all this. Stakeholders must come on board throughout the electoral cycle.

Mr Kaheru is the coordinator, Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy Uganda (CCEDU)


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