About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, July 13, 2020

Elections in the age of COVID

How a scientific election opens opportunities for the opposition in Uganda to perform better

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | There is a popular Chinese saying that a wise person looks for an opportunity in every problem while a stupid looks for a problem in every opportunity. This saying has been ringing in my head since government suggested that they will hold scientific elections i.e. all campaigning will be done electronically without mass rallies. Since then, opposition politicians and their cheerleaders on social and in traditional media have been biting their fingers complaining that this is yet another way in which President Yoweri Museveni’s government is trying to rig them out of the election.

I am always intrigued by the agonising tone of Uganda’s opposition and its supporters. For the last three decades, they have consistently and loudly claimed that elections in Uganda are never free and fair, that the ground is always tilted against them. Indeed, the leading opposition politician, Dr. Kizza Besigye, has said repeatedly that elections in Uganda are so unfair that they cannot act as a vehicle for change of power. It follows, therefore, that the new restrictions are not changing the substance of how elections are handled, only changing the form through which the muzzling of the opposition takes place during campaigns.

I am aware that holding public rallies has been an important vehicle through which the opposition is able to rally a mass political base and inspire many people to join its ranks. However, such open expression of support has always been a double aged sword. It exposes the extent of support for the opposition to government, which cracks down on them using the police and the military.

Secondly, Museveni knows that for most peasants, who constitute 70% of Uganda’s population, elections are not an opportunity to choose which person should gain power. Rather they are a moment for them to affirm who has power. So during election campaigns, he bundles Besigye on police trucks in full view of television cameras to demonstrate who actually has power.

Given the above realities, the opposition must, therefore, seek to participate in this election by identifying the opportunities that may be available through electronic campaigning, not by complaining. I believe that the electronic election is likely to provide them a great opportunity to improve their performance if they can seize it.

But first, a caveat: e-data shows that most Ugandans (90%) get their information from radio. This is a medium tightly controlled by the NRM. NRM politicians and their allies own most of the radio and television, making this a difficult medium for the opposition. Therefore, traditional media favour NRM in this kind of scientific election. But the opposition should stop looking at their disadvantages and turn their gaze at their opportunities in this electronic election.

Let us begin with basic facts. As of December 2019, there were more than 25 million telephone lines in Uganda. Given that our country has an estimated population of 43 million, 50% of whom are below 15 years, it means that the adult population of Uganda is about 20 million. Even accounting for the fact that many people have two telephone lines, and there are many people below 18 with telephones, it is possible that 90% of registered voters have access to a mobile phone. Therefore, a great opportunity to use SMS, robo calls etc. is available if only the opposition can see it and use it.

Secondly, as of December 2019, there were 15 million internet-accounts in Uganda, 98% of which were on mobile devises – largely mobile phones. Even if we assume many people have two lines, it is possible Uganda has at least 12 million people with access to internet, 90% of whom could be 18 years and above. Therefore even with all the restrictions, the opposition will have access to a sizable voting population.

Thirdly, the current restrictions on mass rallies have opened a big opportunity for house to house campaigning, which Ugandan politicians rarely do but which is favorable to the opposition. Because it does not involve mass rallies, it is a style of campaigning that places the state, the ruling NRM party and the associated intelligence agencies at a significant disadvantage. Here, it will be hard to tell the size of opposition support and thereby limit the crackdown. Besides the security services are not going to raid every single home to chase away an opposition activist canvassing for votes.

There is an even more attractive angle to this “scientific” election which should make the opposition smile. Every opinion poll has shown that the lower you climb the income ladder, the lower you climb the education ladder and the deeper you go into the rural areas, the higher is Museveni’s support. Equally, the opposite holds: the higher you climb the income ladder  (except for the top 1% richest Ugandans), the higher you climb the education ladder and the nearer you get to urban areas, the lower is Museveni’s support (or to put it in other words, the higher is the opposition support).

Therefore, most of the people with mobile phones; especially most of the people with access to smart phones and therefore access to social media are potential voters for the opposition. Therefore, an election conducted largely on social media has the potential to improve the chances of the opposition if they can see it. The problem is that this voter segment makes a lot of noise but does not vote. The challenge for the opposition is to rally these people to come out and vote.

Secondly, urban areas where Museveni has the least support (and are therefore the opposition’s strongholds) always register lower voter turnout. For instance, Kampala and its surrounding Wakiso district had nearly 2 million registered voters in the 2016 elections but only 800,000 (40%) voted. Meanwhile, in areas like Kiruhura and Nakaseke (the cattle corridor), which form Museveni’s strongest base, voter turnout in many polling stations was 100%. This is the time for the opposition to use social media to increase voter turnout in these areas where such communication is effective.

But there is a challenge. The most enthusiastic segment of the opposition on social media is radical, uncouth, undemocratic, intolerant and uncompromising. Yet a large section of people on social media, because they are urban, educated, smart and cool, prefer a more moderate posture. They are tired of Museveni and his NRM but do not find the opposition an attractive alternative. The opposition; especially Defiance (Besigye) and People Power (Bobi Wine) will need to tone their rhetoric down even if it is at the price of reducing the fanaticism of their radical extremist base. But will they listen?


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