Voting for LC-I by lining up is dangerous– Sewanyana

Written by Sadab Kitatta Kaaya

Last week, the government announced that it is postponing the LC-I and LC-II elections, which were scheduled on March 17, to 2018.

The postponement, which the government attributed to lack of funds, angered some political and civil society activists. However, DR LIVINGSTONE Sewanyana, the chairman of the Citizens' Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (Ccedu), tells Sadab Kitatta Kaaya that it offers a chance to amend the recently passed Local Governments Act, which scrapped secret voting in favour of lining up behind candidates.

How do you look at the government’s decision to postpone the LC elections?

It gives us enough time to lobby for the necessary amendments to the law (Local Governments Act) so that we can have, whenever appropriate, elections by secret ballot. This of course would include amending the law either following a court decision or a bill being brought before Parliament.

It should also afford government an opportunity to raise the necessary funds given that they had earlier argued that they didn’t have enough funds to hold elections by secret ballot. That is why they preferred lining up [behind candidates], which they argued was a cheaper option.

Dr Livingstone Sewanyana

Why is CCEDU opposed to the section of the law that provides for lining up behind candidates?

CCEDU, as a point of principle, welcomes the elections because we consider them to be important to grassroots democracy and effective dispute resolution. Ugandans have lacked legitimate leaders at that level for so long. However, the proposed mode of electing LC-Is and LC-IIs by lining up runs contrary not only to agreed principles but the spirit of elections.

We go back to the Constitution, Article 68(1), [which] provides for elections to be held by secret ballot, be it presidential, parliamentary or local government elections. However, Article 68(6) gives room to government to hold elections by another method provided the process will ensure free and fair elections.

Still, the Constitution does provide for elections, presidential, parliamentary and local government to be held on the same day unless it is impracticable. CCEDU is opposed to holding [LC] elections under the Local Governments (Amendment) Act on a number of grounds.

One, when they amended the law, they gave one justification; that they had financial difficulties and, as such, holding elections by secret ballot would be very expensive and unaffordable.

One wonders why in 2016, when Uganda held presidential, parliamentary and local government elections – that is [for] LC-III and LC-V – these elections [LC I and LC-II] were not held. Because the Constitution [says]; “Unless it is practically impossible.” They did not justify why they did not hold those elections then and what was impracticable at that time.

Two, the LC-Is and LC-IIs, we are talking about have both administrative and judicial responsibilities. At the level of a community, unlike for a Member of Parliament [MP] or president, everyone knows the other person. When you say I have to stand behind my preferred candidate, it presupposes a lot of things like, I have made a choice among members of the community. That creates a wedge between me and the rest of the community and that is very dangerous because [it can be] a source of conflict.

Number two, there are certain functions that are supposed to be performed by particular people within a community who definitely will find it difficult to line up behind candidates [and] effectively disenfranchise them.

This is substantiated by the various voices we have heard in our ongoing consultations in Kalungu, Kabarole, Busia, and Gulu, etc. These are people who have said that if elections are to be held by lining up, they will not vote. 

Take, for example, priests, church leaders... they cannot be seen to discriminate among their faithful. They cannot say that, ‘I am going to stand behind candidate X as opposed to candidate Y.’ What does that mean in terms of their roles?

You think about a shopkeeper who ordinarily has to sell his or her items to all members of the community and you are asking him or her to choose between one resident or the other. What does that mean to his/her business?

Let’s take it to another level. When we elect [LCs], they are not only supposed to play the administrative role of endorsing your application for a visa or passport, but they also play the judicial function as LC-I court and LC II courts. As courts, they are supposed to be impartial and unbiased. It is human [nature]; there is no way someone whom you didn’t line behind will treat you impartially. 

Where do you get all these fears because lining up behind candidates was the practice in the early days of the NRM?

One needs to appreciate that when we lined up shortly after NRM had just come to power, we were under a movement system of government and, as such, we did not have the political differences that we have at the moment.

If you recall, it was just a matter of X vis-à-vis Y, and it didn’t really matter what your political affiliation was. So, ever since that time, our society got so fractured; it has never been as polarised as it is now. 

Number two, at that time, there was a high degree of romanticism with NRM; today it is a different story. The level of discontent, the level of discomfort is unheard of.

But also in terms of best practices; today, the world over, there is no country where elections, even at the smallest level, are held by lining up. Beyond that, even at the school level, even in the parties, even in the NRM itself which is vouching for lining up, it does not use lining up as a method. They all use secret ballots. So, there is no justification whatsoever for one to say, “Because in 1989 or in [2001] we lined up, it is still possible today.”

Based on the voices of the people, it is already very clear. What this is going to do is to reverse the gains we have made. Which are these gains? Ever since we started campaigning for electoral democracy, we have been working to reverse the voter apathy that this country has been experiencing.

If you go back to the elections of 2006, 2011 and 2016, you realise that the campaigns we have had as CCEDU [such as] Honour your Vote, Votability, and the recent one (Topowa), have had one major effect – to reverse voter apathy.

Voter apathy has been reversed from as low as 40 per cent to 59 per cent and now 68 per cent in the recent elections which was unprecedented. We are likely to again reverse that because we foresee so many people, especially the youths and elites, who are very likely not to vote.

The women, on the other hand, have their own set of concerns. They don’t want to find themselves in situations of conflict with their families. What that means is that, if I am a member of the family and I am not comfortable voting a particular candidate, I have one option; to abstain because if I don’t, then, naturally, that would bring conflict in the family.

We think that this is a recipe for disaster to have elections by lining up. Let’s go back to the argument that government has been peddling [on] why they want [LC] elections to be held by lining up. They say they cannot afford the cost it would take to hold elections by secret ballot.

We have had a discussion with the Electoral Commission and various other people [and], according to the consultations, there is a possibility of even holding these elections by secret ballot more cheaply than they anticipate.

We are talking about people who know each other in the community. They have said, “Look, if you don’t have money to print ballot papers, for us, what we only need are ballot boxes [and] proper standardised paper [so] we [can] write the names of the people we prefer among the candidates, we cast them in the ballot box and, at the end of the day, you count.”

How about those that can’t write?

You thumb-print. The proposal is that you have different colours because elections now are according to political affiliation. So if NRM is yellow, DP is green, FDC is blue, etc; the only difficulty would be with the Independents. So, you can say, white is for independents.

The point is, if I am vouching for Mr Kitatta who is party X and colour X, the person can thumbprint on that piece of paper which is of that colour and casts the vote. It is possible to actually hold these elections by secret ballot more affordably.

There is also the issue of time. With a secret ballot, you designate the period, say from 7am to 4pm, and people are free to come, cast their votes, go away, and come back, if they wish, at the time of counting.

With lining up, the assumption is that everyone who is going to vote has to be in that line from morning up to when everybody is done. The question is; how do you handle that? This is the problem that was made known to us by the EC; it is a dilemma they are facing. It poses practical problems which are very difficult to deal with here.

But there is also another aspect. With a secret ballot, you can designate in one particular location various polling stations with different ballot boxes, because in some areas they don’t have a lot of open space where you can vote from.

In 1989 [and] 2002, some of those places were there but today, they are not. Just look here [Human Rights House, Nsambya], that used to be a polling station [but] it has been taken over. So even the spaces where people can line are very limited. In fact the EC was telling us that if people have to line, the whole village has to come, [but] in some places there are no places where people can line.   

So, whoever amended the law did not visualise what it means. There are people that have been wondering why these arguments are coming now. I think this is one of the most unfortunate situations because, whenever we have laws before Parliament, civil society is called upon to give views.

Normally, the Clerk to Parliament, through the different committee clerks, writes to us inviting us to give views on a particular bill. No such consultation ever took place; everyone just woke up on the question of the amendment because the recent amendment was about two days for registration and so on. That’s when people realised that actually, in 2015, this particular law was amended to remove secret ballot and provide for lining up which was a very unfortunate situation.

Are you then planning to challenge it in court?

Yes. Among the measures we have taken is to reach out to the authorities. We wrote to the president an open letter [which] we disseminated widely to political parties, government officials, the Speaker [of Parliament], etc. Secondly, we are carrying out public consultations and so far, everywhere we go, [about] 85 per cent have one unanimous voice that, “If we are going to line up, we are not going to vote.”

We have also had consultations with the EC and are also planning to reach out to the attorney General. But on another level, we think that the law has to be amended. So, we have put together a legal team and very soon we shall be lodging a petition in court to challenge this particular legal provision.

The public consultations you talk about remind me of a similar exercise you conducted ahead of the 2015 amendment of the Constitution. You didn’t achieve anything out of that exercise. Where do you get the confidence that the current campaign is not in futility?

Of course there are no guarantees that the views [from the consultations] will be heard and respected, but the reason why we are carrying out these public consultations is to gauge the attitude of the people towards these elections. We don’t want to impose our own ideas onto the population because, many times, we are challenged that we the elites in Kampala sit and think for the population.

We wanted, before we go to court, to generate views from the public because our concern is disenfranchising the population. We wouldn’t be happy to see [only] 20 to 30 per cent of the population vote.

If you remember the 2016 elections, after registering a very high turnout at presidential and parliamentary elections, at local government elections, LC-V and LC-III, the numbers were very annoying, and it is likely to be worse [for the LC-I and LC-II elections] because a number of people will be disenfranchised.

So, the reason why we are going out there is to find out from the people what they think about this mode of election because if they overwhelmingly come out and say, “Oh yes, for us we shall vote whether it is lining up or secret ballot,” then definitely we wouldn’t have the legal challenge.

We are also raising a petition; people are signing a petition, and we are going to bring it to the attention of Parliament. So, we are saying, there are no guarantees here; we could still have these elections by lining up but the message will have gone out clearly, people will have spoken, and when the court also speaks to it, then whatever the outcome, we think we will have done our job.

Our concern is that Ugandans are entitled to vote, and voting means making informed choices without undue influence, which of course lining up is all about.


This story was published by The Observer


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