The coronavirus pandemic is not only causing havoc around the world but is obviously going to affect the electoral processes of many countries. Uganda is not only the East African country whose electoral process is affected by the COVID-19. Burundi and Tanzania are also supposed to have their elections. General and local elections have already been postponed in more than 40 countries. In the neighborhood, Burundi has successfully held its General elections on 20th May while Ethiopia has already postponed its much-anticipated national election that was originally scheduled for August 29 this year while. Uganda is set to conduct its general elections in (January) 2021.
According to the Electoral Commission revised Roadmap for 2020/2021 general election, there were a number of activities that had been planned for the month of March and April which have not been able to take place because of measures instituted by the government in response to the pandemic, for example, the display of tribunal recommendations on who should be removed from the voters’ register at each parish. By early April, the EC was supposed to gazette and publish presidential and parliamentary candidates’ nomination dates and venue. From April 8- 17, the EC would to nominate village special interest groups such as the older persons, youths and people with disabilities. They would also use the same time to campaign and have their elections between April 20-24. This process would extend to the parish level for the same interest groups between April 27-29. Notably, all these activities are void of fruition as the pandemic remains a threat. Covid-19 has put political processes in an entirely new light, specifically posing new questions on how electoral processes are conducted and the impact on campaigns and elections is also becoming evident.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in a recent interview with NBS TV said that the country’s general elections may not be held as scheduled given the novel coronavirus outbreak. He continued to say that possibility of the same under the current circumstances would be suicidal. The President indicated that an election doesn't require a long campaign time and can easily be organized if we are free of the virus. However, Charity Ahimbisibwe, the acting national coordinator of the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy Uganda (CCEDU), a civil society organization that has been at the helm of observing elections in Uganda for years, argues that postponing the elections would pose a major legal challenge since it is not provided for under the 1995 Constitution. According to EC officials, a free and fair election requires time and adequate funds to organize not ignoring the fact they have lost time for implementing the road map. With just three months to the planned nomination date for the presidential candidates which were pushed from August to October, it remains unclear as to when the situation will normalize for Electoral Commission and other stakeholders to continue with the preparations.
The debate to whether we should or not postpone elections continues to reflect as concern for the health and safety of everyone is mandatory and a reasonable measure. This however can be challenged if Uganda is flexible enough to pick a leaf from countries like South Korea which have safely held a legislative election amid a spike in the number of Covid-19 infections in the country. This can only be achieved if election administrators can emphasis health and safety measures. Political campaigns can be conducted virtually via media (radio, TV, social media, internet) as they actually are cheaper and more peaceful seeing from South Korea.
The Electoral Commission (EC) should identify and assess the feasibility of implementing any new requirements without compromising the integrity or legitimacy of an election. Consideration should be given to the safe conduct of activities throughout the entire electoral cycle. Activities like, candidate nomination, political campaigning, procurement and electoral dispute resolution must be undertaken in a manner than will not endanger the health of those involved. New ways of electioneering will be ushered in. Media and technology will very much likely be at the heart of any electoral process. Election violence and voter bribery, which are largely driven by the human contact element in elections, could lessen. But what is troubling, is that this could also lessen voter participation.
Considering that there is no foreseeable end to the pandemic and yet elections are a necessary evil, Ugandan citizens should never have to choose between exercising their franchise and keeping themselves safe. In the first place, we would never have to worry about a politically healthy country if we can beat our active enemy, the pandemic. I suggest that while we all put our energies firstly to fighting the spread of Covid-19 in every way possible we should also become more open to exploring alternative ways to execute the electoral processes for Uganda to attain a smooth, free and fair election by January 2021!