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Is boycotting 2011 elections logical?

By Samuel Olara

It is generally accepted that election boycotts have no place in a functioning democracy – participation being at the heart of the democratic process. However, boycotts could have a monumental role to play in a non-functioning democracy where fair competition is practically impossible. The problem lies in determining at what point conditions for a fair election are being violated to such an extent that a boycott is justifiable.

During his recent State-of-the-Nation Address, President Museveni told donors that he did not want lectures on what he knows and is an expert at.

‘If they want to help, let them concentrate on roads, energy and the education and health sectors. We do not need help on elections. We do not need lectures on what we fought for.’ (see ‘Opposition blasts Museveni over polls’ New Vision, June 2, 2010).

And to those Ugandans agitating for reform, Museveni gave this warning: “Nobody should bring his demand and impose it on us on elections. There will be no violence. Nobody can intimidate Uganda.’

The opposition political parties working under the Interparty Cooperation (IPC) alliance are demanding the overhaul of the Electoral Commission. They do not trust it will organise credible elections. They want it replaced with ‘a non-partisan’ team; otherwise there will be no elections. ‘Either we have a free and fair election or we will not have any at all,’ they have said.

Is a boycott justifiable? It is evidently clear that navigating the treacherous shoals of party and electioneering politics under the NRM government is knotty because they are shaped by certain realities. Since 1986, ‘elections’ in Uganda have not been about competing ideas but rather mere political rituals in which the people and the opposition are being used for legitimisation of an intolerant regime.

In 2001 and 2006 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Electoral Commission had no capacity to conduct free and fair elections. As if by default, in both election petitions all the 5 judges in 2001 and seven judges in 2006 ruled: ‘There was non-compliance with the provisions of the Constitution, Presidential Elections Act (PEA), and the Electoral Commission Act, in the conduct of the presidential elections. There was also non-compliance with the principles laid down in the constitution, the PEA and the Electoral Commission Act; and specifically, the principle of free and fair elections was compromised.’

The judges also expressed ‘grave concerns regarding the involvement of security forces in elections, intimidation, violence and partisan harassment; massive disenfranchisement of voters; partisan conduct of electoral officials and lack of voter education.’

Despite the court’s unanimous decisions both in 2001 and 2006 that the elections were a fraud, the judges upheld the election results on the basis that the irregularities were not enough to’overturn the results.’

Nearly five years later, the same Electoral Commission is still in place and it is on this basis that the opposition want electoral reforms and change of the EC composition.

To prove to the opposition that this is not going to happen, the government has raised the stakes by unleashing stick-wielding assailants alongside the police who beat up the FDC President Dr Kizza Besigye and other leaders of the Inter-Party Cooperation when they tried to hold a rally at the Clock Tower on June 9, 2010 to demand a replacement of the EC before next year’s general elections.

The notion that elections can be fair and free under this government is not only self serving but deceptive; because elections can never be held in a vacuum.

Free, fair and credible elections, it must be noted, are not just about events that take place on voting day alone. They relate to the totality of the electoral cycle and consist of important issues such as the provision of credible and updated voter registry, mechanism to verify nationals, a functioning multi-party system, conduct of violent-free campaigns, adequate provision of voting materials, the actual conduct of the voting, speedy counting and declaration of results and postelection activities including election petitions and the fair and speedy resolution of all litigations emerging from the conduct of the election.

These requirements place the electoral institution in a critical strategic position in a country’s democratisation process, as it remains the principal body constitutionally charged with the responsibility of managing elections. In view of this the success of any elections and electoral process is directly linked to the competency of the electoral commission.

The question here is has the opposition learned its lesson and what is it going to do about it? Five years is a long time in politics. If the opposition is counting on the international community or the courts of law to change the outcome of a flawed electoral process, it will be a waste of time and resources. The international community has done nothing in the past and will allow similar abuse to vanish into an informational black hole, thus legitimising not only the process but the results.

Notwithstanding, the experience of the past should have taught the opposition that they are not equal partners in the ‘electoral’ process but mere participants being used to legitimise the process.The writing on the wall portends danger not only for the opposition but the whole country.

Ugandans have been patient and if good intentions ever paved a road to hell, they are doing so in Uganda. History rarely declares when folly turns to disaster. What follows after 2011 will determine the destiny of this country.

Samuel Olara is a human rights advocate and son of former army commander Gen. Bazilio Olara Okelloolarasamuel@hotmail.com

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