A free and fair ‘digital’ election impossible in Uganda – Experts

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The COVID 19 pandemic has tested the strength and resilience of our political system as a country. On June 16, the Electoral Commission released a revised road-map for the forthcoming 2021 elections. Notoriously standing out in this revised road-map is the provision that campaigns (a very important aspect of electoral democracy) are to happen exclusively over the media – social and mainstream, due to the virus. This move has elicited mixed reactions from different stakeholders raising questions on the viability of the elections.

Chapter Four Uganda, a non-profit organisation that seeks to defend civil liberties and protection of human rights recently organised a webinar under the topic: Democracy in the Digital Age: Implications of Uganda’s Digital election Campaigns. This webinar brought together distinguished thought leaders including celebrated American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, American Scholar Larry Diamond, Perry Aritua, a gender equality activist and human rights lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo.

The webinar offered a very insightful discussion on the fabric of democracy across the globe and several recommendations on the principles that must be respected in order to strike a balance between legitimate public health concerns and democratic rights and freedoms.

In 2016, the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) in its report on media coverage of the 2016 elections noted that throughout the season, the national broadcaster Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC), which is required by law to give equitable coverage to all candidates, rendered disproportionate attention to President Museveni’s campaign. UBC gave the incumbent 73% of its entire news and commentary airtime on elections, with the next candidate, Mbabazi, receiving only 12% of the coverage. Dr Besigye, the eventual runner-up in the election, received only 4.5% of UBC coverage.


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Ms Perry Aritua noted that: “For elections to be free and fair, access to media must be equal for all candidates.” The discussion also put a spot on possible challenges of an exclusive media campaign which include, media bias during campaigns and a possibility of disenfranchisement due to costs.

The World Bank, in a report published on 29th June 2020, estimated that about 3.15 million Ugandans could fall deeper into poverty, adding to the 8.7 million Ugandans currently living below the poverty line. In view of this context, Francis Fukuyama observed on the forthcoming election that the “digital dimension has a degree of inequality.”

A section of the public including some members of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) representing Uganda recently called for a postponement of Uganda’s 2021 election to 2023. They argue: ‘ Why would we strain our already weather-beaten and earmark huge sums of money in a process that does not have prospects of being free and fair?’ On the issue of postponement, Francis Fukuyama advises that we should take into account the context of electoral democracy in Uganda.

“An issue like postponing an election really depends on context; it could be good and it could be bad..” he said.

Questions were also raised about public trust in public institutions. Robert Kirunda, a law lecturer at Makerere University wondered: “How do we prepare for what happens after the election in which people do not trust the state to organise a free and fair election and do not trust the Supreme Court to deliver an independent verdict?”

Francis Fukuyama, on the issue of public trust, commented that: “It is good to be able to trust institutions but often times you are in a situation where the issue is not trust, it’s power and if somebody is exercising power unjustly, you have to figure out how to gain power yourself and then you can worry about rebuilding social consensus on trust”

The panelists advised stakeholders to be innovative and adaptive while protecting democratic rights in the pandemic. Larry Diamond, the author of elections without democracy: Thinking about hybrid regimes, called on civil society organisations to come forward as an alternative actor to ensure a free and fair election through voter education and ensuring the innovative proliferation of broadcasting electoral messages.

The role of the populace in ensuring a free and fair election was also highlighted. Ugandans were called upon to record inappropriate activities that could undermine the transparency of the election. The state is also called upon to provide the most basic requirements for a free and fair election. Only then can the country have a free and fair digital election.


 

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