(Un)Even Playing Field in Uganda’s 2016 Elections? Observers Disagree

Preliminary reports from observers in Uganda’s 2016 elections bear some contradictions.  While regional observers generally saw the process as free and fair, local Ugandan civil society groups and observers from the EU and Commonwealth question the fairness of the elections due to an uneven playing field.  Here’s a brief summary of their preliminary reports…

Regional Observers Call the Process Free and Fair

In a joint press briefing on Saturday 20 February 2016, regional observers from the East African Community (EAC), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Community of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), and African Union (AU) presented their views on the electoral process.  In general, observers from the region considered the process free and fair.

COMESA mission leader Ambassador Ashraf Gamal Rashed (Egypt) stated,

“The polling process was generally free, peaceful, and transparent despite the logistical challenges that delayed the opening of polling stations.”

Yufnalis Okubo (Kenya) who led the IGAD mission considered the process an improvement over 2011 and saw certain aspects as a “good example to the regional states” like the presidential debate and open availability of the voters’ register.  Overall, he concluded,

“In our opinion, the 2016 general election met the minimum international standards of a free and fair election.”

Meanwhile, the reaction from the EAC and AU missions were mixed. While former Tanzanian president Ali Hassan Mwinyi viewed the elections as the most competitive in Uganda’s history, he also urged the country to consider reforms in campaign finance transparency and presidential term limits. As he stated,

“The absence of a legal requirement for disclosure of campaign income and expenditure makes accountability difficult and promotes negative influence of money in election competition.”

Sophia Akuffo (Ghana) representing the AU mission also had reservations about delays at polling centers, stating,

“The AU mission wishes to underscore that this impacted on the overall conduct of the polling operations, and caused anxiety and tension among the voters and polling officials, which could have been avoided.”

Ugandan Observers Find Credibility of Electoral Process Undermined

In the 2016 elections, a consortium of eighteen civil society organizations formed the Citizens Election Observers Network (CEON-U) to provide a local face to election observation.  The group engaged in six months of long term observation, including campaigns, voting, and vote tabulation.

In their preliminary report, CEON-U argues that the legal framework for elections does not allow for transparency or accountability in the electoral process. In addition, they argue,

“…the concentration of power in the presidency and the use of the security agencies beyond their constitutional mandate sends a message to voters that the playing field is not level and undermines confidence in the electoral process.”

During the campaign period, they cite an uneven playing field as the main impediment to a free and fair process.  This includes arrests of the the main opposition candidate Kizza Besigye, abuse of state resources, widespread bribery, excessive campaign expenditures by the ruling party, limitations on media freedom, disproportionate access to state media by incumbents, social media restrictions, and heavy-handedness of the state security apparatus.

During the vote tallying, CEON-U observed delays in transmitting the results, a lack of transparency by aggregating the vote tallies, disruptions in vote tallies, and army and “crime preventers” presence at some tally centers.

In sum, the local observers conclude that “Uganda’s hope for free and fair elections [has been] dashed.”

Western observers also cite widespread irregularities

Observers from the EU and the Commonwealth of Nations were also present during the elections. The consensus from these two groups, and the US Embassy Kampala, seems to be quite negative.

The EU preliminary report commends the active participation of voters during the campaign and election period. They also cite the live presidential debates as an achievement in campaign transparency. Their biggest concerns appear to relate to the uneven playing field.

“…the National Resistance Movement’s (NRM’s) domination of the political landscape distorted the fairness of the campaign and state actors were instrumental in creating an intimidating atmosphere for both voters and candidates.”

But they also cite problems with delays at polling stations, intimidation of the opposition, and the interference with social media as impediments to a fair election.

“The lack of transparency and independence of the Electoral Commission (EC), and its markedly late delivery of voting material on election day to several districts considered opposition strongholds – most notably in Kampala, decreased the opportunity for voters to cast their ballots.”

Finally, the EC notes that early deadlines for voter registration impeded access for untold numbers of youth

“…establishing the cut-off date of 11 May 2015 for inclusion in the voter register disenfranchised potential voters who turned 18 after this date.”

The Commonwealth group of observers was led by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.  He echoed many of the EU concerns in the Commonwealth observers’ preliminary report, stating

“For now, it suffices to state that the inexcusable delays of supply of materials to polling stations, particularly in Kampala and its environs, and other deficiencies in the process to and conduct of the elections, would have seriously detracted from the fairness and credibility of the results of the elections.”

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