Poll shows Uganda’s democracy has ‘stagnated, regressed’


Last Saturday, as Yoweri Museveni was declared president of Uganda for a fifth consecutive term, the military rolled armored cars down the streets of the capital, Kampala, and police surveillance helicopters hovered overhead, Ugandan journalist Tabu Butagira writes:

The election result, military presence and “preventive” house arrest of Museveni’s rival, Kizza Besigye, have been disturbing but not unexpected. Museveni is, after all, the man who told the US secretary of state, John Kerry, when he’d called to demand an end to the arrest of opponents, not to “worry a lot about the internal affairs of Uganda because we know how to handle it”.

And handle it, he did. To extend his 30-year rule, Museveni – who came to power as a guerrilla leader in 1986 – has been prepared to use force. As polls opened last Thursday, Ugandans found their mobile money services and social media networks blocked. Using a virtual private network, local TV station NTV Uganda tweeted that the blockage was “because there was information that people were using these to bribe voters”.

Observers had expressed pre-election fears that the regime was moving towards a ‘dictatorship light’.

In their preliminary reports, election observers from the EU and the Commonwealth, as well as from Ugandan civil society [including partners of the National Endowment for Democracy], were critical of the electoral commission. They said the commission lacked transparency and independence, The Guardian reports:

Between 2011 and 2015, Ugandan civil society and political opposition parties carried out nationwide campaigns for electoral reforms. Among other things, they wanted a statutory body – rather than the president – to appoint electoral commissioners for one non-renewable term. They argued that the commission ends up working for and at the behest of the ruling party and the president. Those proposals were rejected by parliament, which is dominated by Museveni’s NRM party.

With the performance of the EC again under scrutiny, some observers have been quick to refer to the rejected proposals, as well as earlier questions – by the courts – about the EC’s performance in the 2001 and the 2006 elections.

Most of the present complaints about the EC were raised after earlier elections, said Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a political historian at Makerere University in Kampala. He says the latest elections showed that as a democracy Uganda had “stagnated or even regressed”.

Questions about the election’s fairness puts Western donors in an awkward position: Museveni, an important ally in the region, is leading mediation to end conflict in Burundi and contributes 5,000 Ugandan troops to the African Union force in Somalia that has brought a measure of stability to the country, Reuters adds.

Stephanie Wolters, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, said of the criticism from Western powers was “the kind of stuff that the international community has to say”.

“I don’t think it’s going to translate into longer-term criticism of the Museveni government, or any kind of significant shift in how donors interact with that country,” she said.

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