The Electoral Commission’s cancellation of campaigns in Kampala and Eleven other districts and cities at the weekend has provoked rage among voters and candidates in the respective areas.
The Electoral Commission (EC) cited the surge in Covid-19 infections and persistent violation of Standard Operating Procedures (SoPs) by some candidates.
“The EC has suspended campaign meetings in districts/cities categorised by the Ministry of Health as having a high spread of Covid-19. From 26/12/20, no campaign meetings will be held in Mbarara, Kabarole, Luweero, Kasese, Masaka, Wakiso, Kabarole, Jinja, Kalungu, Kazo, Kampala and Tororo,” the EC statement indicated on Saturday.
Mr Paul Bukenya, the EC spokesperson, said campaign meetings in the said districts, which are considered to be registering high spread of the virus, had been suspended indefinitely starting December 26.
National campaigns end on January 12. Polling day is January 14.
The EC statement came hours before the Ministry of Health confirmed 203 new Covid-19 infections as the national case rate rose to 33,563 with 245 deaths.
Immediately, Mr Patrick Amuriat, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) presidential candidate, who was campaigning in Buganda Sub-region, scoffed at the ban as President Museveni’s strategy to frustrate Opposition candidates who are yet to campaign in the listed areas.
“The FDC has not received any official communication. However, should this rumour turn out to be true, then the EC has to explain to us how they expect us to carry out our campaigns in these major towns,” Mr Amuriat said.
“As far as we are concerned, tomorrow (yesterday) we are in Jinja and will be in Tororo and Kampala on the days we are scheduled to be there,” he added.
Mr Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, the National Unity Platform (NUP) presidential candidate, also protested the ban. He said the regime is trying to frustrate his campaigns due to the “massive support” he has in some of the listed districts.
President Museveni, on his part, is to end his campaigns on December 30, after which he will hold small meetings with party leaders until January 12 when campaigns end.
In the countryside, some voters claim the indefinite suspension of campaigns is targeting Opposition strongholds, while others say the ban should have been evened out across the country since the pandemic is countrywide.
Mr Jimmy Wambede, the FDC parliamentary candidate for Bunghokho North County in Mbale District, said the EC ban targeted mostly Opposition strongholds.
“The EC is a walking stick of President Museveni and does what it wants, not what it is supposed to do to have a free and fair election,” he said.
Mr Abdallah Magambo, the NUP mobiliser and an aspirant for a councillor in Northern Division West in Mbale City, objected to the campaign ban.
“EC cannot preside over a free and fair election. Stopping campaigns in 11 districts is another election robbery,” he said.
However, Mr Ayub Wamboya, another local leader in Tororo District, said the EC decision is a good intervention which may control the spread of Covid-19.
His view was reiterated by another voter, Mr Daudi Migereko, who has held many ministerial posts and is a former MP for Butembe County in Jinja District.
But Mr Geoffrey Ekanya, a contestant in Tororo North County, says he is so disappointed with the suspension. He suggested that security should be intensified on enforcing standard operating procedures.
Mr Abdallah Zein, Jinja South Division speaker in Jinja City, said: “In fact, it (the EC) should have also postponed the elections because the whole country is not safe due to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Mr Herbert Mugisa (Independent) aspiring for mayor Fort Portal Central Division, said if the government wants to save the citizens from contracting Coronavirus, it should not be doing it selectively.
He said they should ban campaigns countrywide.
“Coronavirus is all over the country; so, why ban campaigns and leave markets open? Why ban campaigns and leave taxis to overload and overcharge passengers? They have left taxi drivers to manage themselves,” he said.
In Masaka City, Ms Mariam Tusiime, a resident, said she would support the ban if it wasn’t selective. “I wonder which criteria was used to select these districts, leaving out places such as Kabale and Kisoro which have also been affected. Anyway, politics is always a dirty game,” she said.
Do radios stand a chance?
While candidates would turn to electronic media such as radio and TV stations for campaigns, Mr Simon Nangiro, a local leader in Karamoja Sub-region, thinks it won’t help the candidates either. “The ban on campaigns is intended to frustrate the Opposition. How will they address their supporters when they are not even allowed to access radio stations?” he asked.
In Mbarara City, Mr Vincent Paddy, a voter and lawyer, said political campaigns cannot be justifiably suspended while public transport, markets and arcades continue operating.
“Campaigns are just periodic, but markets [in urban areas] such as Owino and public transport operate every day and SOPs are not followed. If it is about Covid-19, it should be the Ministry of Health to have recommended the ban, not the EC,” he said.
Mr Mweteise Bintabara, an ANT supporter and former parliamentary candidate for Kazo Constituency, described the ban as a sinister scheme.
“It is not EC, but the government behind the move. If you are stopping campaigns over Covid-19, why didn’t you also stop people from travelling from towns to villages for Christmas? Those areas where campaigns have been stopped are more urban and people are careful,” he said.
Mr Peter Olong, a teacher, said the EC at first indicated that candidates were going to use mainstream and social media to reach out to the people but the Health ministry later relaxed Covid-19 restrictions by allowing a gathering of up to 200 people. “Candidates cannot control people who turn up at meetings,” he said.
Mr Celestine Mugisha, the ANT MP flag bearer for Mbarara City North , said: “We will carry on with door-to-door campaigns as we have been doing but we also expect the EC to give an alternative approach now that they have banned the 200 people rally.”
Mr Charles Barasa Ole, the FDC MP flag bearer for Samia Bugwe South, said: “I suspect there is a hidden hand in these directives.” He said the most affected areas are Opposition strongholds with over 2.5 million voters that the candidates needed to reach before elections.
Agago North County MP, Prof Morris Ogenga Latigo, says: “You cannot hold credible elections by stopping one part of the country from campaigning and allowing the other parts to continue. This sends a very wrong image of the entire process.”
The director of Centre for African Research, Mr Arthur Owor, said: “The ban is very specific and targeted because if you look at the voting patterns in this country, the ban is on the districts that are overpopulated and are Opposition strongholds. This draws a lot of suspicion.”
Mr Fred Mwebembezi, a voter in Kabarole District, said government has not stopped campaigns in areas where there are a lot of Covid-19 cases.
Ms Rose Mary Seninde, the State Minister for Primary Education and Wakiso District Woman MP, said much as she would have liked to complete the remaining campaign meetings, she considers the safety of the voters.
“I had already covered 25 sub-counties out of the 27 where I had scheduled the meetings. This is a cross cutting challenge that is not limited to a particular group of politicians. Covid-19 is real. I will abide by the advise and guidelines,” she said.
In Luweero District, Ms Brenda Nabukenya, the NUP party candidate for the District Woman MP, said: “We should not allow the EC to be used to stifle democratic principles simply because they have external pressure. The voters have a right to listen to the candidates and make informed decisions,” Ms Nabukenya said.
Mr Othman Kamoga, the NRM candidate for the Luweero District LC5 seat, said the pronouncement has affected his programme. “The situation is very complex but we need to follow what the EC has advised,” Mr Kamoga said.
Compiled by Philip Wafula, Bill Oketch, Denis Edema, Fred Wambede, Felix Basiime, Steven Ariong, Malik Fahad, Alfred Tumushabe, Patrick Ebong, Joseph Omollo, Scovia Atuhaire, Dan Wandera & Polycap Kalokwera