Electoral reform must remain top on Uganda’s democratic agenda

We are fortunate to live in Uganda, a country where it is easy to take the right to vote for granted. Uganda has conducted eight direct general elections at both presidential and parliamentary levels from 1961. Elections conducted between 1961 and 1980 all had a common red thread – perceptions or realities of vote rigging.  The perceived or reality of rigging in the December 1980 elections was the key reason for the five year guerilla war fare. 

Though relatively calm, the post 1980 elections of 1996; 2001; 2006 and 2011 have all been marred by allegations or realities of military interference, bribery, coercion, manipulation, violence and a host of other electoral malpractices – all of which have subsequently negatively impacted on citizens’ right to freely express themselves through the power of the vote. 

In reflection this brings to mind a statement once made by former Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin who said:  It is enough that the people know there was an election.  The people who cast the votes decide northing.  The people who count the votes decide everything.

Stalin’s statement provides a perspective of elections common to many African countries. 

In Uganda, although the minimum electoral threshold provides for voting liberty, right, or franchise, not everyone finds the path to the ballot box easy. Many people risk losing wages for taking time off to vote. Others have childcare or transportation considerations that make voting difficult. Others do not live in the country, while some just made 18 on the polling day and therefore had not been captured on the voters’ register.  Still others do not realize they need to change their voter registration information until it is too late. 

However most interestingly, even many of those whose names appear on the register find it very difficult to go and vote either because they don’t believe in the whole voting ‘thing’ or they just see no plausible reason to do so.  Take for instance, in Uganda’s 2011 general elections, only 58% of the 14 million registered voters turned up for the presidential and parliamentary vote.  Despite the currently existing electoral law, it is still quite uncertain on whether it is the voter who matters or the officer that counts the votes.  Such real or virtual perceptions go a long way in explaining the often murky type of elections that we have seen in the recent past. Fortunately, governance based civil society groups in Uganda in their post-election agenda have set out to advocate for comprehensive and fair electoral policies to make sure people are not inadvertently left out of the voting process.

Some sections think that it is too early to start talking about electoral reform when the country has just come out of an election, however, if we resolve the many issues that are a product function of the existing inadequate electoral law, then we will be providing answers to the ‘unresolved issues’ from the 2011 elections and laying a firm ground for the 2016 election cycle.  To those who think that this is too grand an initiative to embark on, civil society’s resolve of working through all society configurations to achieve collective objectives is anticipated to yield positive results in form of adoption of most or all of the identified electoral reform proposals.  

In this spirit of collective strength and quoting from the words of famous political speaker, Paul Davis: The love of people must surpass the love of power. We must remember we are all interrelated and interconnected as one. None of us are as strong as all of us. Together we all accomplish more. Divided we fall apart and destroy ourselves.

It is possible and necessary to have a fair and comprehensive electoral law four years before the next election.


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