By KAMPALA, (CAJ News)
V iolent crackdown, disruption of election administration to disenfranchise opposition supporters, and the blocking of social media followed Ugandan national polls as newcomers threaten incumbent Yoweri Museveni’s political hold on the East African country. The fourth democratic polls since 2005, were no different from the past polls except that the incumbent secured victory with the lowest margin since 1986.
Ugandan elections, the first in the continent since the advent of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, showcased how the latter could impact election. Compared to the previous elections in 2016, voter turnout was at 59,35 % of the 18,1 million registered voters. This contrasted with a turnout of over 67 percent recorded five years ago when Museveni (60,62 %) defeated his usual rival, Kizza Besigye (35,61%) of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). “The Electoral Commission is appreciative for the Ugandans who dared the challenges brought about by COVID-19 to exercise their right to go out and cast their vote,” spokesperson, Paul Bukenya, said.
The Electoral Commission announced Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) as the winner with 58,38 % of the vote. His main challenger, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, the 39-year-old politician-cum- pop star also known as Bobi Wine, secured 35,08%. That meant NRM extended its majority in Parliament by 23 seats from 293 seats in the previous parliament. Ssentamu’s National Unity Platform (NUP) garnered 61 seats displacing the Forum for Democratic Change as the official opposition party.
Ssentamu’s election success might be a sign of potential future misfortunes for the incumbent. The ruling party’s popularity in the urban areas waned. The party did not secure any of the ten parliamentary seats in the capital Kampala, where Wine’s NUP made inroads with nine seats. An independent candidate retained the other. The NRP’s fortunes have plunged especially among the youth, in a country with one of the youngest populations in the world. Seventy-eight percent of Ugandans are under the age of 30.
Ochieng Nangobi, a political commentator, said the decline in the percentage attained by Museveni indicated the president’s popularity was declining. “I foresee his margin falling further if the opposition puts up a spirited campaign in the next poll. The ruling party faces an uphill struggle in retaining the support of the youths, largely because of high poverty levels”. Except for the impact of the COVID-19, the January 14 polls had vast similarities with previous ones as the country of more than 45 million people maintained its reputation for controversial elections.
Government stopped campaigning in some number of areas including the capital Kampala in what ostensibly was a measure against COVID-19, but critics argued the places impacted by the ban were opposition strongholds. The run up to the elections highlighted government’s usual heavy-handedness with Ssentamu arrested twice, including for allegedly violating COVID-19 protocols during his presidential campaign. He was put under house arrest at his home in Kampala. During his campaign, several of his aides, bodyguards and members of his entourage were arrested, jailed or allegedly killed by security forces.
There has been a social media blackout during the last two elections, amid claims by Museveni’s government that such platforms spread rumours and sow chaos. Opposition claims the blackout was an attempt by authorities to prevent the public from reporting irregularities in the election process. Allegations of rigging and opposition challenging the outcome are nothing new, starting with the 2006 poll.
Efforts to challenge the elections legally fell on deaf ears as the Supreme Court rejected Besigye's request to nullify the elections. Ssentamu withdrew his party’s challenge of the result of [January] elections. He alleged the Supreme Court was biased and had “a predetermined mind.”
This is a sign of declining legitimacy of Ugandan democratic institutions. Hence opposition parties will look to the intervention of the international community to address their issues. Ssentamu delivered a petition to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Kampala. The petition was to protest human rights abuses and abductions of his supporters in the run up to and after election.
Military police beat at least ten journalists covering the event. In response the military has apologised for the beatings and announced that a military court had reprimanded seven members of the military police. Two officers have been in detention for two months in a military facility. Unless there is a major shift in the conduct of the Ugandan government, opposition parties are likely to call upon the international community to rein in democratic abuses.