Ugandan civil society fears unfair presidential poll as Museveni bids for new term
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Uganda’s presidential campaign kicked off on Monday amid fears that the voting would be rigged or slanted to favour the incumbent, long-standing President Yoweri Museveni. But the country has vigorous social media and seasoned opposition candidates, including Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change and Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister, who is running as an independent.
Museveni is widely expected to win at the polls on 18 February 2016, the year the former rebel leader who went on to found the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) celebrates his 30th year in power.
Uganda has been criticised in recent years for the way it runs its elections. In the previous, 2011 presidential campaign Museveni exercised his power to such an extent “as to compromise severely the level playing field between the competing candidates”, the European Union election observer mission wrote in its final report.
Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, are calling on the authorities to ensure that the elections are free and fair.
“All Ugandans should be able to attend rallies, listen to all candidates in person or on the radio, and express their views without reluctance or fear,” according to senior researcher Maria Burnett.
But Ugandan legislation governing elections, including the Parliamentary Elections Act and the Local Government Act, has often been criticised for being unfair to the opposition.
“There’s absolutely no way we can have a free and fair election because the legislation used in past elections that was found to have loopholes, to have several problems, has remained intact, has remained unchanged,” lamented Nicholas Opiyo, former secretary of the Uganda Law Society and executive director of Chapter Four, a civil rights group.
The Electoral Commission has urged candidates "to conduct peaceful campaigns and comply with the law" including a ban on campaigning in the last two days before the polls.
But the Electoral Commission, set up under Uganda’s former one-party “Movement political system”, itself has come under fire for being skewed in favour of the ruling NRM.
“That Electoral Commission is seen to be incompetent, biased, unable to organise free and fair elections,” remarked Opiyo in a phone interview from Kampala. “The Supreme Court on two different occasions found that Commission not to have conducted elections in accordance with the law – and we have this same Electoral Commission conducting these elections.”
The campaigning that promises to be no-holds-barred appears to be more robust that in previous election campaigns with mud-slinging among top contenders, especially in social media. Opposition hopeful Mbabazi is already being accused of being pro-homosexuality because he has criticised the country’s notorious anti-gay bill.
“Already it is extremely exciting mostly because of social media,” said Simon Kaheru, a media analyst. “Social media has made news much faster and much less filtered than before. We are following the campaign as it happens every second.”
No amount of live TV coverage or Twitter fights can ensure that the poll will be free and fair, according to researcher Timothy Kalyegira.
“Yes, you might have social media, but at the end of the day when the final results are being tallied in the Electoral Commission offices there’s no social media to witness that,” he said.
Police have been accused of obstructing the opposition. Besigye, often detained when trying to address the public, routinely faces temporary “preventive” home arrest to ensure that he does not attend rallies that have not been approved by the police.
Ugandan police, sometimes using teargas and rubber bullets, regularly interfere with opposition rallies.
“Candidates want to go and campaign and then are blocked by the police,” explained researcher Timothy Kalyegira in a phone interview from Kampala. “Candidates book a venue in a certain town, pay for the venue, do all the organisation and at the last minute the police comes and says: We’ve got news of a potential terror alert here and for that reason you must call off your campaign.”
Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011