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Election Day should not be a war zone

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Edward Scicluna, a member of European parliament and former electoral commissioner in Malta was the Chief Observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) of Uganda’s Feb.18 elections. He spoke to The Independent’s Mubatsi Asinja Habati about the EU EOM’s preliminary statement in which it noted improvements in the organisation for the election and the failure to implement comprehensive reforms in electoral process as recommended in its 2006 election report. The EU elections observers’ final report will be out in May.

In your preliminary report you said the improvements in the 2011 elections were marred by avoidable failures. What were these failures?

The overall picture was good. There was freedom of movement and association. However, there were wrong things which one could see and could have been avoidable. The biggest failure was inadequate training of electoral polling staff and one of our recommendations in the 2006 elections report was the need to train polling staff properly across the country in order to understand the essential steps of the process. This includes the question of sealing ballot boxes, time to start and end voting, procedure of tallying results from polling stations, etc. you need good managers for this exercise. This was a good practice in South Sudan and Tanzania in recent elections where polling staff were well trained and knew their job. In many polling stations in Uganda, it was clear the polling staff did not know how to conduct the polling process. The basics like ballot boxes should arrive in time, what to do when they arrive, displaying an empty ballot box, putting the seal, etc. For example in some polling stations the personnel putting ink on those who finished voting did not know where to put the ink; those supposed to check the names of voters on the register ignored the regulation that observers should be close and hear the voter saying his name aloud, but in some polling stations the observers were pushed very far and could not hear the name of the voter to be able to crosscheck with the observers’ voter register to enhance transparency. Of course there were unavoidable incidents that depended on the people. These included intimidation, violence, impersonation, but these happened on small scale.

Were there any other failures?

Voter identification was another challenge. Of course the law says you do not need it, granted. But then you must have something else in place to prevent confusion. It is a basic thing that a person who votes must know clearly where they are to vote from. There were those who registered to vote in particular places and did not find their names on registers in those places. They made changes or divided polling stations at the last minute so the voter would not find his name. For us a person to wait for an hour in the queue who has only one chance to express her or his human right of voting once in five years and later you tell her sorry your name is not here; go home; it is a serious issue. Of course, some would go to find their names elsewhere and the lucky ones would vote yet others did not succeed. Or it could be that some were impersonating and so it was good to turn them back. It is the responsibility of the Electoral Commission that this does not happen in future elections.

The EC said it had a complaints desk on the voting day and had asked the observers to call to report such issues and say they never received any.

The observers called the Electoral   Commission and in any case were just observing. The EC should have put everything in place.

What is your assessment of the environment in which the 2011 presidential and parliamentary election was conducted?

This takes three dimensions. There is the media, there is freedom of association, and there is use of money and gifts in the campaigns. The media was free, so you cannot say it was one voice on these media from the state and no other candidates were allowed. But again when you look at state media, the law says such media should give equal time to all candidates, this failed according to our monitors. Presidential candidates were not restricted in movements to campaign.

We find it undemocratic to see candidates influencing voters through use of money and gifts. This means that voters need to be educated and empowered about the importance of votes. They need to learn that their vote is shielded in secret ballot, for example if a candidate tried to influence you or intimidate you, you have the shelter of being secret that in the box nobody knows what you have put in. Now if the citizen does not know his right or he thinks the state or somebody else might be seeing and be discovered, then there is fear. We were disappointed that voters might think that whoever gives the biggest gifts or money therefore is the best candidate.

In future elections what would like you to observe being done better?

We would like to see better trained polling staff and more education of the citizens about the power of their vote. There was low voter education. Voters should vote issues and look out for candidates who discuss issues that affect them. Voter education should aim to tell the voter on issues to check for on the voting day.

You simply stated that the elections were peacefully apart from isolated violence in some parts. Were they credible, free and fair?

From a human rights point of view the death of one person is too many.  We cannot minimize the ugliness of the violence meted out in some places on a few individuals.  However, we are also concerned about the other millions of voters who stayed out of voting: were they intimidated, were they scared of the violence or the presence of the army and police and they chose to stay? In our overall picture we are satisfied that in general the election was peaceful but it was not a 100 percent. There are so many things were not pleased with, for example the police officers deployed at the polling stations who though unarmed should not have been very close to the ballot box.

What is your take on the heavy deployment of the army on the streets on the voting?

I know this is Uganda and you had a nasty incident in July last year. Yes, you need these soldiers to contain the security threat. However, where there is peace, keep the soldiers hidden but on standby. An election is a peaceful democratic activity; you are not in a warzone. When they are needed you can bring them in but not marching them across polling stations.

So would you describe the election as being credible, free and fair?

I object to those words because they pigeon hole the measure of trying to either legitimise a government or go into various implications. Our job is to observe and we say what in a democratic process failed and succeeded. We were pleased to see representatives of political parties go where the ballot papers were printed, were pleased with results being posted on the EC internet for the stakeholders to see during tallying. But we would wish to see results up to the polling stations posted. We do not suspect overall ballot stuffing or rigging but there were isolated cases of such.

You deployed 120 observers who visited 643 polling stations out of 23,851. Would this enable you capture a fair observation of the election and thus make your report credible?

A sample of 600 even for the USA is acceptable. If you select the sample very well, catering for the differences in regions, ethnicity, languages, gender, education, that is enough. We have enough reach at that figure to give our conclusion; we are not giving election results.

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