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Key findings
  • Support for elections is strong in Uganda: Almost nine in 10 citizens favour choosing leaders through regular, open, and honest elections (86%) and disapprove of an alternative under which elections and Parliament are abolished (87%).
  • But assessments of election quality are less favourable: Only about half of Ugandans believe that elections ensure that elected leaders reflect voters’ views (49%), that elections enable voters to remove non-performing leaders (45%), and that votes are usually counted fairly (52%). Sizeable proportions of the population say that the opposition is often prevented from running (20%) and that voters are often bribed (49%) and threatened with violence at the polls (27%).
  • Four of five specific electoral law reforms that the survey asked about receive majority support: that candidates convicted of vote-buying be barred from future elections (86%), that election results be declared at the constituency level (80%), that Electoral Commission members no longer be appointed by the president (57%), and that presidential candidates be required to name their running mates during the campaign (55%).
  • A majority of Ugandans (58%) say that citizens who require special assistance in order to cast their ballots should not be barred from voting.
  • While the demand for electoral reforms is stronger among opposition supporters than among ruling-party members, it runs across party lines and is strongly correlated with dissatisfaction with the quality of elections.

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.

Francis Kibirige

Francis Kibirige is the national coordinator of the Afrobarometer survey in Uganda and managing director of Hatchile Consult Ltd.