EC wants Ugandans abroad prisoners, to vote in 2026

A woman casts her vote at Nabbingo Polling Station in Kyengera Town Council, Wakiso District, during elections for LC3 chairpersons and their councillors on February 3, 2021. Photo/FILE

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The electoral body also wants spending by candidates on campaigns capped and a law enacted to legalise and regulate deployment of technology in conduct of elections. 

Prisoners and Ugandans living abroad will be able to cast the ballot in the scheduled 2026 elections, if a raft of proposals by the Electoral Commission (EC) are approved.

The electoral body wants spending by candidates on campaigns capped and a law enacted to legalise and regulate deployment of technology in conduct of elections. 

In a change that could elbow Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) out of the electoral process, the EC has proposed that it takes over verification of academic documents that aspirants submit for nomination.

Some of the suggestions have been informed by court directions, while others are in-house ideas, according to the EC. These proposals would now add to a litany of pending electoral reforms previously proposed by Opposition political parties and civil society, which were intended to level the ground and allow for a truly free and fair ballot.

Mr Paul Bukenya, the Commission spokesperson, who confirmed the EC’s latest positions, said now is the time for stakeholders to submit proposals for reforming how elections are organised and conducted in Uganda.

“It is true that there are several areas that are being discussed with a view of proposing amendment to improve our electoral processes,” he said, “As EC, we have areas we want to see addressed so we can improve the management of elections.”

The Commission, he noted, had learnt invaluable lessons from media and election observer reports and filings by returning officers on the 2021 vote.

The new EC proposals will have to be considered and endorsed by Cabinet, and eventually passed by Parliament if the government, which has vacillated on previous electoral reforms, tables them in the House.

Officials said the reforms will either require amendments, among others, to the Electoral Commission; Political Parties and Organisations; Parliamentary Elections, and Presidential Elections laws or the enactment of completely new legislation.

Sources familiar with the processes told this newspaper that the EC wants the reforms agreed on and enacted in time to enable a smooth organisation and conduct of future polls, starting in 2026.

Overdue changes

Calls for comprehensive electoral reforms have been on the cards for years, with Opposition political parties, civil society organisations and even officials of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) pushing for them.

Faith leaders under their umbrella body, the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, as well as champions of interest groups such as the youth, have also echoed similar demands -- amid mounting complaints that the over-commercialisation of Uganda’s politics was turning elections into auctions and crowding out capable potential leaders who lack resources.

In decisions on former prime minister Amama Mbabazi’s unsuccessful petition against President Museveni’s 2016 re-election, the Supreme Court recommended 10 electoral reforms to address continued legal and practice controversies facing elections in Uganda.

The judges observed that the time for filing and determination of a presidential election petition be increased from 30 to at least 60 days, and that the use of oral evidence in addition to affidavit evidence be accepted in court.

They also held that the time for holding a fresh election, where a presidential poll result has been nullified, be increased from the currently prescribed 20 days and recommended that the use of technology in elections be backed by law.

According to the highest court in the land, provisions should also be written into the law to sanction any state organ or officer who violates provisions of the law with regard to access to state-owned media.

The judges recommended that giving of donations (during campaign periods) by all candidates, including a sitting president, who bids for re-election, be prohibited in the same way as public servants are barred from being involved in partisan political activity.

The judges designated the Attorney General, who is the principal legal advisor to the government, as the authority who would follow up implementation of the Supreme Court’s recommendations.

However, seven years on, the government has, through the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs as expected, dragged its feet and not introduced any Bill for legislation which would give effect to the court’s recommendations.

Justice ministry officials were unavailable to comment for this article.

The Opposition dismissed the government’s 2019 five-point electoral reforms as selective and inadequate to level the political playing field.

Opposition demands

This was after members of the Opposition in Parliament in the same year attempted to introduce electoral reform legislation through a Private Member’s Bill.

Among the Opposition proposals was for presidential aspirants who garner 10 percent or more of the total votes cast to become automatic ex-officio members of Parliament, reinstatement of presidential term and age limits, and the introduction of a federal system of government.

They also demanded creation of an Independent Electoral Commission, whose commissioners are vetted and appointed by impartial actors, unlike the current practice where the President (who has been a candidate as well), picks the commissioners.

The Opposition demanded that the number of Cabinet ministers be limited to 21 as provided for in the Constitution.

None of their proposals found its way onto the floor of Parliament because the presiding officer in the House at the time advised the intended movers to submit their suggestions to, and harmonise positions with, the government.

Tororo District Woman MP and former junior Health minister Sarah Opendi separately sought to introduce a Bill to, among others, raise the academic qualification of  a presidential aspirant and MPs from the current minimum of Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) or its equivalent to at least a bachelor’s degree.

She also wanted the number of elective parliamentary seats reserved for women increased from the current 30 percent to 40 percent, a raise she said would address gender inequality in leadership.

Mr Wilfred Niwagaba, the shadow attorney general and prospective mover of the Opposition Bill on electoral reforms that went nowhere, has said he is sceptical about the impact of the EC’s “piecemeal” proposals on the electoral process, if adopted.

“Those are really cosmetic because my proposals were fundamental as they related to amendment of the Constitution, and amendments [of other Acts] would naturally follow,” he said, adding, “Ours related to governance in general, constitution of the [Electoral] Commission…, addressing the involvement of the army in politics … nobody should read in[to the EC proposals as] a solution to our electoral malaise.”

As legal advisor to the government-in-waiting, as the shadow cabinet is loosely referred to, Mr Niwagaba said the Opposition is looking into wider reforms in consultation with other parties.

EC’s 5-point vote reforms

1. Ugandans in diaspora, prisoners to vote. The High Court in Kampala in June 2020 ruled that Ugandans in the diaspora and prisoners be allowed to be involved in the election of their leaders. In her judgement, Judge Lydia Mugambe said disenfranchising these Ugandans by denying them the opportunity to vote, violates the Constitution, and the right to vote.

EC was unable to implement the court’s directive and petitioned the same court asking for more time to carry out the exercise, pleading that the time they had been given was not enough to hold elections in both the diaspora and in the country’s prisons. 

Court then revised the directive and ordered that the EC organise elections for Ugandans in the diaspora and in prisons during the coming elections in 2026.

“We need to put in place a legal framework to facilitate those citizens to vote … we have set up a technical team that has been identifying areas to be put in place, especially a legal regime, before you even go to logistics. We do not have a parish outside of Uganda recognised in law,” EC spokesperson Paul Bukenya said.

Sources who spoke to this publication on condition of anonymity, however, indicate that the body is sceptical as to its capacity to enable Ugandans spread all over the globe to vote in the next election. They say resource constraints may hinder this, and have suggested to start with only Ugandans resident in the East African countries. This would require the EC to return to court for a revision.

2. Early voting

The EC also wants its Act amended to provide for early voting for “essential workers”, among them EC staff, journalists and security personnel, who are said to usually be busy on voting days. This could also consider travellers and voters who may be away from their polling areas on voting days.  Early voting is a practice by which votes are cast ahead of Election Day. Countries like America, Australia, Canada, among others employ this system with a limited window of days provided. It is not yet clear how categories for early voting will be selected, but the EC opines that this will help increase voter turnout. 

“We have people like the media, election officials, security officials and early voting will help us address low voter turnup...,” Mr Bukenya said

Statistics from the last presidential election indicate that of the 18 million registered voters, according to EC data, eight million did not appear at the polling stations to cast their vote in the January 14,2021 polls. But a number of analysts attributed the voter apathy to anxiety over security matters as opposed to an inability to go and vote.

3. Regulating campaign financing

If its proposals sail through, it will be mandatory for candidates to declare their finances to the EC, and possibly cap the amount of money to be spent by candidates running for different positions. Sources say the monetisation of elections informed the proposal. Voter bribery and donations have recently become a prominent characteristic of Ugandan elections.

According to the proponents, regulated financing will sanitise the process, counter corruption and level the playing  ground for all aspirants. 

4. Verification of documents

The Electoral Commission also wants to be given the mandate to verify aspirants’ academic documents before they are duly nominated. Currently, the verification of documents is done on a case by case basis by the Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb). The body says they are often fined in court cases on account of nominating candidates whose papers are found to be wanting.

5. Technology use

The EC has also proposed an amendment to have the use of technology in elections backed by law. The amendment, the EC says, should prescribe guidelines for the use of technology in elections management.