Regular, free, and fair elections are a significant and crucial pillar and a fulcrum around which the wheels of democracy revolve. This is essentially because elections in their true sense allows for regular competition for political power leading to peaceful change in government.
Elections, thus, provide for an avenue where the governed exercise their free and unfettered choice among competing candidates and their manifestos. Article 1 of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda, particularly clause 1 bestows power to the people of Uganda. Clause 4 asserts that “The people shall express their will and consent on who shall govern them and how they should be governed, through regular, free and fair elections of their representatives or though referenda.
There is no doubt, elections have been regularly organised in Uganda. However, the country’s electoral history is replete with narratives of flawed and disputed elections that have turned violent, resulting in numerous fatalities and reversing attempts at deepening democratic rule.
In four consecutive presidential occasions, 2001,2006,2011 and 2016, the election results were contested in the supreme court by the opposition on grounds of irregularities and in all the cases, courts affirmed these flaws despite the court ‘s decision to uphold the results.
In the 2016 ruling, the Supreme Court recommendations were followed by a directive to the Attorney General (AG), who is the chief government legal adviser, to follow up these recommendations and report back to court within two years on the progress.
Last month, the Attorney General presented five bills (Presidential Elections Amendment Bill, 2019, Parliamentary Elections Amendment Bill, 2019, Electoral Commission Amendment Bill, 2019, The Local Governments Amendment Bill, 2019 and the Political Parties and Organisations Amendment Bill, 2019).
The proposed amendments attempt to deal with some of the structural gaps that characterise Uganda’s electoral management system.
For instance, the Presidential Elections Amendment Bill, proposes extension of days from 90 to 120 within which to conduct Fresh Presidential Elections. The reforms also propose extension of time from filing of petitions to the determination of the same by court from 45 days to 60 days. This to give the parties and the Court enough time to prepare, present, hear and determine the petition, while at the same time being mindful of the time within which the new President must be sworn in.
The proposed presidential amendment bill further attempts to address challenges of electoral campaign financing though restricting use of foreign funds and use of government resources; and provides for fairness to access to state owned media by all presidential candidates to promote their programmes.
However, on the other hand, there are several regressive proposals that dilute the positive intentions in the proposed reforms.
For instance, Section 9A, Clause 3 and section 10A, Clause 2 of the Presidential Elections Amendment Bill and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Bill respectively, proposes undue Restrictions on Independent Candidates. The proposals require that for one to stand as an independent candidate, one should have ceased being a member of a political party 12 months before nomination or to have never belonged to a political party.
Such a proposals are not only laughable but unconstitutional as they contravene Articles 1, 72, 29 and 38 of the Constitution which provides for right and freedom to associate, right to participate in the affairs of government and right to stand for Elections as a candidate independent of a political party.
The reforms miss the most critical and deeper issues.
For instance, Uganda’s electoral management is bedevilled with lack of public trust in the electoral commission because it is considered partisan.
The reforms should, therefore, seek to establish an impartial electoral body that has the acceptability, trust and confidence of all parties engaged in the electoral process. Ugandans cannot trust a body whose constitution is largely in the hands of the incumbent who identifies, vets and appoints “referees” in an election he is going to participate.
Secondly, electoral reforms must address the unbridled advantage bestowed to the incumbent. Evidence shows that in growing democracies, elections conducted when the incumbents is standing as one of the contending parties have tended to be more susceptible to violent and flawed outcomes because of the inordinate bid to retain power.
Parliament should amend Article 260 to ensure that the presidential term limits are entrenched to make a direct citizen participation in changing of the presidential term limits and allow for a systemic transition from one incumbent to another.
But even in the unlikely event that these reforms are instituted, the government must look beyond the legal exercises and have real commitment towards building a democratic society since elections are not conducted in a vacuum.
Free and fair elections should not be looked as an event but rather an ongoing process of deepening democracy.
To realise meaningful reforms, the character of government must significantly change. The present-day government is largely a patronage system where institutions are superseded by informal relationships whose primary mission it to sustain regime survival. Meaningful electoral reforms must be preceded by strong and functional institutions designed to serve the interests of the citizenry as opposed to selected factional elite groups.
Short of this, the proposed electoral reforms shall remain a necessary ritual but will not guarantee credible elections in Uganda.
Mr Kawooya is the Manager Democratic Governance at ActionAid Uganda