The toxic political environment that has enveloped the country recently should be a trigger to renew calls for meaningful electoral reforms.
What many analysts today perceive as anger from a section of the opposition is a reflection of the fact that they feel the government has deliberately dilly-dallied on the core electoral reforms that would give them a fair chance during an election.
The responsibility of tabling reforms essentially falls on the two arms of government: the executive and the legislature. In the previous election cycles, the executive has chosen to play the long game.
When former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi unsuccessfully contested the outcome of the 2016 elections, the Supreme court recommended that electoral reforms be undertaken within two years of swearing in of a new parliament to avoid “hastily enacted legislation.”
But this was never the case. Instead, parliament waited up to the last minute to table reforms heading into the 2021 elections. They included adopting technology in the management of elections such as electronic transmission of results by returning officers.
Parliament also proposed expanding the period within which to file a presidential petition. It can be filed from 10 days to 15 days. This had been recommended by the Supreme court, which said 10 days were inadequate for a petitioner to gather all evidence from across the country.
The court also called for the expansion of days within which a new presidential election should be held in the event of an annulment of an election - from 20 days to 60 days, which the executive accepted as it hastily tried to push through the reforms.
Yet these reforms, some of which were adopted, did not touch the core issues that the opposition had been vouching for. For instance, the opposition has always yearned for a truly independent electoral commission in word and deed.
The initial proposal was to have members of the electoral commission appointed by an independent body like the Judicial Service Commission and taken through a transparent public vetting process - a departure from the current norm where they are appointed by the sitting president.
What the executive did in the run-up to the 2021 elections was to affix the word “Independent” and call it the Independent Electoral Commission. But in substance, it stayed the same. In essence, this did not change anything for the opposition, which has severally claimed that the current composition of the EC gives the incumbent unfair advantage.
Some opposition politicians such as Dr Kizza Besigye have said it is virtually impossible to defeat President Museveni through an election. Therefore, the sentiments expressed by NUP president Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine at his rally in Luweero is just a reflection of this anger.
The anger that begs the question: why can’t these massive crowds that turn up at the rallies translate into electoral victory?
The answer lies in having impactful electoral reforms, which, if well adhered to, will lead to a smooth political transition. This is what needs to be done. The involvement of security personnel in an election needs to be well stipulated and regulated. The Electoral Commission needs to be independent and have security of tenure.
The process of transmitting results needs not only to be electronic; it must also be more transparent like we saw in Kenya. All the declaration forms from the various polling stations must be thoroughly verified and accessible electronically to all members of the public through the EC web portal.
Yet, the most important of the reforms is to trim the powers of the incumbent over certain matters pertaining to elections during a campaign.
There had been a proposal in 2011 by the civil society for the president to momentarily step down during the campaigns and hand the reins to the Chief Justice (since the vice president and speaker may be viewed as partial and in Uganda’s case could be running for elections) but this was shot down.
As it stands now, the political ground is not level. An incumbent in an election still wields much power and can shape the electoral process the way he or she likes. There is nothing under the law that stops an incumbent, who is the commander in chief, from, say, issuing orders that restrict the operations of his or her rivals in case of a national security or health threat like we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since the incumbent appoints members of the Electoral Commission, the commissioners can’t call him or her to order in case he or she violates an electoral law during the campaigns.
There is nothing that can stop the incumbent from shutting down the internet or social media platforms like we witnessed in 2021. Without meaningful reforms, some analysts believe the country could be headed for tougher times because political players may channel the anger into something else. Something worse.
The author is a journalist and political analyst.