Reform of electoral laws has been a mainstay of political discourse in Uganda for two decades. Since the issue came to the fore following the 1996 general elections, stakeholders on all sides – opposition political parties, civil-society organisations, election observer missions, government, and the Electoral Commission (EC) – have called for reform to ensure free and fair elections (International Foundation for Electoral Systems, 1996; Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, 2013a).
In 2014, after a countrywide multi-sectoral consultation exercise that reached more than 3,000 local leaders, a variety of stakeholder groups1 joined in proposing 46 reforms in the Uganda Citizens’ Compact on Free and Fair Elections (National NGO Forum, 2014). There was renewed optimism when political organisations, including the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, worked together to build consensus on the proposed reforms through initiatives such as the Interparty Political Organisation for Dialogue (IPOD), the Interparty Cooperation (IPC), and the National Consultative Forum (NCF).
Ahead of a crucial Parliament debate on reforms, the Cabinet (Otafire, 2015) and the EC made their own reform proposals, which the opposition rejected as inadequate (Solomon, 2015; Deo, 2015) amid calls from some stakeholders to boycott the 2016 elections if reforms proposed in Citizens Compact were not implemented (Reuters, 2015).
The most significant reform proposal that made it into the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2015 was an attempt by the government to address the issue of the Electoral Commission’s independence by changing its name to “Independent Electoral Commission” (Parliament, 2015a, p.12). However, many stakeholders rejected the proposed name change as “cosmetic” (Parliament, 2015a; Ortega, 2015; Kemigisha, 2015), and it was dropped (Commonwealth, 2016).
With the 2016 elections now completed, the key question is whether these proposed reforms will be revisited ahead of the next general election cycle in 2021. In his State of the Nation address a month after he was sworn in, President Yoweri Museveni said that Uganda has “already carried out” the “most advanced political reforms” (Museveni, 2016).
Public opinion in Uganda indicates solid support for pursuing reforms to the country’s electoral laws. Afrobarometer’s 2015 survey shows majority support for four of five proposed reforms that respondents were asked about, including discontinuing the appointment of EC members by the president and requiring that election results be declared at the constituency level.
More generally, survey data from the past two decades suggest that enduring public demand for electoral reforms in Uganda stems from a consistently large disparity between citizen support for elections in general and citizen assessments of the quality of their past elections.