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Is Museveni to blame for voter apathy?

By Flavia Nassaka

2016 general elections could record the lowest voter turnout ever

According to the latest revised roadmap for the 2016 general elections, the polling date for the President and Members of Parliament has been set for February 12, 2016. While that might be certain, what is now worrying analysts is the growing horde of voters who have shunned the polling stations since 1996.  If this persists, the preparations being made by the EC at a colossal amount of money could go to waste as people stay away from the polling booths.

An estimation made by the Electoral Commission (EC) indicates that up to 15 million Ugandans will be eligible to cast their vote in the elections.  As the EC has not yet come out with the final voters’ register, this estimation was based on the National ID card project data, which captured details of Ugandans aged 16 and above in a mass registration exercise conducted between April and September last year.

The current 15 million eligible voters represent an increase of one million from the 14 million people who were registered to vote in 2011. Since 1996 when Uganda held its first general elections after the war that brought President Yoweri Museveni’s NRM to power, voter turnout has seen a worrying downward trend, which has been attributed to various reasons. According to International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance data, 72.6% of the 8.4 million Ugandans who registered cast their vote in 1996. In the 2001 elections, 70% of the 10.7 million turned up whereas in 2006 69% of 10.4 million registered voters turned out to vote. In 2011, the turnout slumped even further to just 59% of the 14 million eligible voters. It could only get even worse in 2016. Experts put the number of those who might opt to stay away from the polling stations to have increased by over 80% despite the fact that the number of eligible voters has been increasing.

Patrick Wakida, who heads Research World International (RWI), a polling firm, says they are planning to conduct a poll later this month to establish how many people will be willing to vote come next year.

In the survey, they will attempt to establish the proportion of Ugandans who registered for the national ID, the percentage of those who registered and have received their IDs, and how many of those have correct details. Then they will ask how many of those are likely to vote. But, even before they collect that data, Wakida predicts that next year’s poll might have the lowest turnout ever.

“At this moment, the figures declared by the EC can’t be trusted considering Gen. David Sejusa’s earlier confession that there was another tally center that declared the results. We can’t know for certain whether turnout dropped or remained the same in the previous elections,” he says.

He said researchers had not considered ascertaining EC voter turnout figures until Gen. Sejusa’s pronouncement but they’ve now come out with an analysis through comparing polls done by RWI, Afro Barometer and the Monitor Publications in 2010 before the elections and 2012, which put the voter turnout at between 65% – 70% – a different figure from the official EC’s 59%.

James Mwirima the national coordinator Citizens Watch-IT Uganda, a consortium of six organizations that monitor government programmes, appears to share Wakida’s view. He suggests that there will be more voter apathy as the register has more first-time voters the majority of whom are aged between 18 and 40 years of age – an age group that is very disgruntled with the current government. Ideally, this dissatisfaction would have resulted into more opposition votes if the opposition had a good chance at the polls, which is not the case.

“These voters divorce themselves from political processes when their interests are not served. They remain merely enlisted on the register and when elections come they never bother,” says Mwirima, adding that such an age group and the middle class are more observant of events and are therefore more concerned about the agenda of the various contenders of office. They’ll first consider whether their recommendations in form of reforms have been adopted before they head to the polling stations. Such recommendations are delivered through the civil society and members of the opposition but as it is now, these groups are still battling with government to have meaningful reforms adopted. That creates distrust in the electoral system, which breeds a ‘why-bother’ attitude in the minds of the voters.

But it’s not just the failure to adopt electoral reforms that may turn way people from the ballot. Even the just concluded general update of voters register was largely ignored by many people, which should have given the election managers an idea of what to expect. Throughout the exercise, the media was awash with reports of irregularities that marred the exercise plus the confusion that came with the use of the national Identity card data to compile the register. As a result, the exercise, which was scheduled to take place within 23 days, kept being extended but even then the general turn up was reported to be low. Had the EC separated the two exercises, the officials at the EC’s registration centers would have spent the whole day sleeping because of boredom.

Crispy Kaheru of Citizen’s Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CEDU), gives the EC credit for using the national ID database even with the complications they’ve found along the way.  Though many have contested the legitimacy of the register, his view is that this was one of the best building blocks towards making the National Voters Register clean, credible, inclusive and representative of voters who are citizens of the country. However, some experts such as Emmanuel Oluka, a Political Scientist, argue that the accuracy of the data that was compiled in the ID project was suspect and there was not enough time to validate it before being transferred to the voters register.

“Though the idea was good, the timing of the processes had challenges, which will eventually affect the number of people who will take part in the election since a huge number of people left the update centers frustrated,” he says.

He adds that everything was done in a rush thus not allowing the stakeholders including legislators to understand the process and verify their details. He says that like all data, they needed some time to verify and clean it up before using it for such a big project like an election immediately.

However, Kaheru’s argument is based on the fact that while this citizen registry may not provide 100% guarantee that all those on the register are Ugandans and over 16 years of age, it will at least provide some sort of assurance that those on the roll have had their citizenship credentials vetted unlike in the previous elections.

Over the last 20 years, elections in Uganda have been marred by allegations the opposition that non-citizens and ‘ghost voters’ were voting for the incumbent.  This has consistently compromised the integrity of the whole exercise thus forcing many eligible voters to shy away from the polling stations with the belief that their vote won’t change anything after all.

The complaint of ‘ghosts’ on the register was more pronounced in the 2001 elections when 10.7 million Ugandans registered to vote – a figure that was contested by the opposition. In 2006, after a cleanup exercise of the register to remove the dead and foreigners, 10.4 million people appeared on the final register of which 7.2 million voted (69% turnout), a figure that was not far apart from 72.6 % in 1996.

Museveni’s vote to lose?

Analysts say President Museveni managed to win by 74% with a high turnout of 6.1 million people out of the 8.4 registered in 1996 because people still saw him as the ‘messiah’ considering the fact that people had not gone to the polls for over ten years and also because of the relative peace enjoyed following the guerilla war that brought him to power.  At the time, people were generally enjoying relative political and economic stability.

But as issues of corruption, nepotism, greed for power and the northern Uganda war became major concerns for the voters, the voices clamoring for change started getting a little louder. Ironically, Museveni’s winning percentage did not show any sign of reducing. For instance in 2011, he garnered 68% of the votes with his immediate competitor Dr. Kizza Besigye getting only 26% from a voter turnout of 8.2 million out of the 14 million registered voters.  In 2006, he won by 59%. Apparently, those who don’t want Museveni have tended to shun the polls yet those who want him are always willing to cast the vote for their man, according to Wakida.

In 2011 for instance, Wakida says the turnout correlated with Museveni’s support across all the 112 districts that participated in the election. In most areas where Museveni had fewer votes, even the turnout was low, which was to his advantage. Also, leveraging on his incumbency, Museveni created new districts just towards the poll which garnered him a lot of support from the new districts. That leads to the all important question: What should the opposition do to persuade more of the voters who want change to cast their votes against this politically shrewd incumbent?

Some analysts say the irksome delay by the government to table meaningful electoral reforms before Parliament and the controversies surrounding them plus the delay to conduct voter education were all meticulously calculated by Museveni to tighten the taps on opposition voter turnout by creating confusion among voters about the seriousness of the elections.

Indeed according to Oluka, Museveni has appeared to be in full control of his NRM party throughout the multiparty dispensation, which has consistently given his supporters confidence to go to the polls to vote for the ‘sole candidate.’ Actually for those who turn up, it’s probably because they are sure that their man will win anyway.  This is in sharp contrast to his political rivals all of whom appear to be in a disarray of sorts.  For example, while leaders of the Democratic Party, FDC, and UPC continue to bicker over who should be the flag bearer, the NRM is busy registering members countrywide with a warning that those whose names are not in the ‘Yellow Book’ would not be allowed to vote. Analysts say this confusion is detrimental to voter confidence in the opposition.

“The Opposition doesn’t give Ugandans a clear alternative of who they will front and their agenda. They are still weighing between boycotting and fielding a single candidate,” says Oluka. “If you are a voter, what do you do?”

With the general lack of vigilance only months to the poll, Wakida says there is no alternative but swearing in a government that doesn’t represent the general wishes of Ugandans. He says that elections in Uganda can no longer determine anything – typical of a country still far from achieving principles of a democracy. He adds that to win back their confidence, people need to be re-assured that elections still matter because the world over, elections are run through mobilization and persuasion.

Kaheru agrees. He says voter participation can be increased by revising and putting in place laws and practices that support improvement in the electoral system. It is such laws and practices that will provide that much-needed confidence and attraction to the electorate to fully participate in the electoral process.

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