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Did Ugandans really not vote?

By Agather Atuhaire

EC announced 63% turnout but long queues send different message

As Ugandans voted in presidential and parliamentary election on Feb.18, one of them, Jackie, posted on her Facebook page that she was overwhelmed by Ugandans determination to vote. She was voting for the first time and said she saw the same determination in others at her polling station.  “This is the first time I was ready to vote in an election and nothing could stop me,” she wrote.

Soon, however, excitement turned to despair as voting materials failed to be delivered on time.

She narrated. “Having arrived at 6:50am and promptly joined a long queue, I was saddened that the voting materials had not been delivered. Voting was to start at 7:00am but the materials were delivered at 11:30am.”

Still, even after the government attempted to shut down all social media and she turned to the Virtual Private Network (VPN), Jackie wrote that the voters appeared determined to endure the delays by the Electoral Commission. She continued: “One of the amazing things was the growing number of voters that kept coming to wait in line under the scorching sun. Other voters went and picked chairs from their homes and returned to wait in line. Some went off to buy snacks and water, and returned to still wait in line. This was the first time I was determined to make my voice count. To take back the power I have always owned but had long given away. It was the same spirit that many other voters, especially the elites in the line demonstrated.”  Another voter, Gordon Murangira narrated on his Facebook page how he and his friends endured all the conditions, the scorching sun, and frustrations by the Electoral Commission.

“I and my other youthful friends lined up in the scotching sun for close to 6hrs to cast our votes for our preferred candidates,” he said. “We were not about to let anyone stop us from participating in determining the future of our country.”

He continued: “I remember in the line a guy in front of me almost gave up and I held him by the hand, told him how politics affect our everyday life from what we eat, to what we put on, to the air we breathe and how necessary it was for him to vote. He also endured and voted.”  In the end, of the 15.8 million people that were registered as voters, 9.7 million cast their votes, according to results that were declared by the Electoral Commission.   The figure represents only 63% voter turnout, only four percentage points more than last election’s 59%. Up to 6 million registered voters are said to have stayed away from the polls.

This depicts a continued low voter turnout since 1996 when elections resumed under the National Resistance movement. In 1996, voter turnout was reported at 72% but has since been on a downward trend.

Although this time the turnout was higher than in the last election, there is a feeling of disappointment considering the expectations and the predictions of opinion polls. Previously, low voter turnout has been attributed to apathy and hopelessness among voters. This time several Civil Society Organisations and the media run numerous campaigns urging people to vote to decide the destiny of their country.

Livingstone Sewanyana, the director of Foundation for Human Rights Initiative which is a member of the Citizens Election Observer Network, recalls how they kept telling Ugandans to go out and vote because “the stakes are high”. They urged them to be part of change and execute their right to vote.  “All of us have a stake in transforming the country. That vote is the power you have to change something,” they preached and citizens appeared to listen.

Another election body Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU) ran a campaign dubbed “Topowa” in the media urging Ugandans not to give up and to exercise their right to vote to determine the leadership of the country.

Even on Election Day, it appeared the voter turn-out was high.

Makerere University Lecturer and renowned Lawyer Robert Kirunda appeared on one of the television stations on voting day and announced that he had never seen Ugandans committed to participating in an election the way they did this time.

He said messages on a whatsapp group he belongs to of friends and colleagues started coming in as early as 6am urging group members to go and vote.

By that time, he said, most of the members were already on their way to polling stations.

Blaming the EC

When asked why that commitment and determination did not translate into a higher voter turnout than was reported Kirunda told The Independent that the issue was not the turn out. “The turnout was ok,” he said, “the problem was with the tallying and the Electoral Commission in general.” It is not just Kirunda who had issues with the way this election was conducted.

Many election observers, both local and international, say the voter enthusiasm and determination was shuttered by the Electoral Commission.  “Voter enthusiasm for the democratic process was eclipsed by the atmosphere of intimidation and ruling party control of state resources in Uganda’s third multiparty elections,” said Eduard Kukan of the European Union observer mission. He added: “I saw the remarkable commitment of Ugandans to participate in their electoral process, regrettably the Electoral Commission failed to communicate effective steps that would have been needed to overcome growing tensions caused by markedly delayed delivery of the voting material”.

Many voters would agree with Kukan.

Patrick Wakida, the director of the polling firm Research World International, says it is pointless attempting to analyse voter turnout under these circumstances.

“First of all,” he says, “the voter turnout was higher than what was reported. Secondly, the atmosphere couldn’t have facilitated the expected turnout. In fact, it was way higher than anyone could have achieved under the conditions that prevailed.”

He says if the atmosphere had been bearable and if the voting materials had not been delivered inexcusably late, the turnout would have been overwhelming considering the high agitation for change among the population.   Another commentator said had it not been because of frustration by the EC, Uganda would have this time registered the highest voter turnout in history.

“You cannot talk about voter turnout with the inexcusable conditions that the EC subjected voters to,” he said, “It is the EC that failed Ugandans. How did they reach at the 63% when close to 2000 polling stations were left out?” he asked.

He says even if each polling station had only 500 voters turning out, that would be one million votes which would have impacted significantly on the reported figure.

Over 1,800 polling stations were left out of the tallying because, according to the EC, they had not submitted their results by the time the results were announced. It was bad in some districts like Rukungiri where only 3 out of 276 polling stations were considered. In Jinja, only 11 polling stations out of 399 while 288 polling stations were left out in both Kampala and Wakiso.

These, according to observers are FDC strongholds which makes the EC’s motive suspect.

An official from one of the security organs told The Independent that voters in some of these polling stations were frustrated deliberately because a high voter turnout would have disadvantaged President Museveni.

“There were many maneuvers to sabotage voter turnout,” he said on condition of anonymity.  Same with the intimidating atmosphere around the polls, including heavy deployment of security.

“The commotion between Forum for Democratic Change Presidential Candidate Kizza Besigye and the police the other day was meant to dissuade voters from turning up to vote.” He was referring to the arrest of Besigye and the subsequent protests by his supporters in Wandegeya in which one person was shot dead by police just two days to Election Day.  Such claims, are by their very nature, difficult to independent verify.

In the end, the 63% turnout was equal to the 64% that has overtime become the average in African countries. This turn-out is a result of a declining trend and is the lowest compared to other continents. A paper titled ‘Voter turnout rates from a comparative perspective’ says there has generally been a notable decline in voter turnout.  According to the document, Africa experienced a pronounced increase in turnout in the mid-1980’s following the wave of democratisation but has overtime dwindled.

In most cases, voters reportedly stayed away from the polls because they believe issues of governance do not impact significantly on their day to day lives.

According to Sewanyana, people do not see any reason to vote when the government has failed to provide social services like healthcare and education, and they are still poor.  Others lack faith in most government institutions, in this case the Electoral Commission, and do not believe voting can remove a government.

A poll by Research World International in the run up to the election showed that 45% of Ugandans don’t believe the electoral process can lead to power changing hands, while 32% don’t believe the elections will be free and fair.

But many commentators say anyone talking of a low voter turnout in the just concluded elections is missing the big picture.

According to them, the big picture is that the Electoral Commission failed to do its job by either failing or deliberately refusing to deliver election materials to most parts of the country on time and followed that up with announcing results before many votes were tallied.

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