Four years ago we went to an election with a lot of ‘unfinished business’. In fact, for many of the players in that election, their participation could have been nothing but a mere formality. The major issues that dogged the 2001 and the 2006 elections had not been addressed. At the center, was the need to guarantee the credibility of the voters register; address the question of people’s confidence in the election management body as well as tackle issues around the perceived partisanship and highhandedness of the security apparatus especially during election periods. These challenges continued unabated in a political environment where the effects of incumbency were lurid.
Even though there was consensus around resolving these issues right from the 2001 elections, they didn’t make their way to parliament for legislative interrogation until less than a year to the 2011 elections. Even when Parliament opened up to a discussion around electoral reforms in 2010, the substantive reforms as proposed by civil society, political parties and some government entities did not see light of day simply because, ‘the time was too short’ to debate them and that many of them had a potential of ‘touching on the Constitution’. And because of these two ‘main’ reasons, the substantive reforms that would have sort of shifted the electoral ground (for the better) were sidestepped in favor of small administrative modifications in the electoral process.
The net result of these maneuvers was that Uganda yet again headed for the 2011 election with the ghosts of the unfinished reforms hovering over it. The blaring clamors for a ‘leveled ground’ were meek reflections of a myriad of the unresolved questions. This could have partly explained the 59% low voter turnout alongside close to 7 million persons out of the 14.9 million Ugandans qualified to vote staying away from voting.
Who knows, if the longstanding electoral issues had been dealt with conclusively, may be the fraction of the electorate participating in the 2011 election would have been much higher; may be the level of engagement during campaigns would have been better; may be the election would have certainly been more meaningful than it was; or may be there would have been higher acceptance of the results from the election. We can only imagine what it would have been if the ‘real’ reforms had been adopted; and adopted in time to influence that election.
A year to the 2016 election, it is still astonishingly debatable whether we will be able to correct some of those recurrent electoral howlers that have whelmed Uganda over the past three electoral cycles. The uncertainty of the kind of legal regime under which the 2016 election will be conducted is causing anxiety amongst many stakeholders including the general electorate itself. This is already setting a bad tone for the election.
It remains unclear whether the answers to the fundamental question of a leveled political ground will be provided this time round. The Ugandan electorate has patiently waited for more than a decade for electoral reforms to happen, but in vain. Amidst this long wait, apathy is gaining fair ground and elections are becoming galas at which ‘those with the money’ go round to buy votes from mainly the poor and unsuspecting voters. In other instances, those with access to the ‘uniform’ use it wittingly to achieve the desired electoral outcome.
To avoid similar political/electoral downturns in 2016 (which are already being imaged in the by-elections), Parliament needs to urgently and conclusively consider the pending electoral reform proposals that have been on the table for a long time. This should be with a view of objectively debating and adopting those reforms that will correct those electoral gaffes that have previously reflected Uganda as a retrogressing democracy.