Since the 17th century, elections have represented a necessary condition for the legitimate functioning of representative democracies. Nonetheless, if the criteria of freedom and fairness are not properly respected, the mere presence of popular vote will not prevent a country from experiencing a democratic erosion. To argue the previous statement, the post will evaluate a specific case study that is Uganda, where corruption, bribery and violence are some of the words that clearly illustrated the foreseeable outcome that the 2021 elections produced.
Yoweri Museveni vs Robert Kyagulanyi
After gaining its independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda has been marked by recurrent coups d’état and a never-ending succession of dictators in power. Although rare episodes of popular vote occurred throughout the years, the country managed to hold its first multiparty elections only in 2006, after decades of instability. Notwithstanding, consistent shreds of authoritarianism still continue to be perpetuated nowadays. A relevant instance might be provided by the 2021 Ugandan sixth general elections, that took place on January 14.
During the political campaign eleven candidates registered to compete, however, only two main figures stood out: Yoweri Museveni, leader of the National Resistance Movement, who has been wielding power in Uganda since 1986 and Robert Kyagulanyi, also known by his stage name Bobi Wine, a member of the National Unity Platform, whose previous rapper career drew the youngsters’ attention. Due to the fact that more than 70 percent of the population in Uganda is younger than 30, Museveni’s main opponent had a serious chance of beating his rival, after five consecutive mandates. However, two days after the ballot, Uganda’s Electoral Commission surprisingly announced Museveni as the winner, with over 58 percent of votes.
But were these elections free from fraud or any sort of irregularities? Well, I’m sorry to tell you that the answer is: DEFINITELY NOT.
First of all, repeated episodes of violent behavior impeded the development of a fair electoral process. Indeed, public intimidations started in November, when challenger Bobi Wine was arrested and tortured multiple times. As a sign of protest, people from all over the country took to the streets, revolting against the persistent governmental injustices. However, over 50 demonstrators were brutally assassinated by military forces.
But the physical aggressions were just the tip of the iceberg. As a matter of fact, numerous fraudulent activities have been carried out during the day of the elections. Polling stations that opened late in the capital Kampala, the jam of voting machines, the further manual identification of voters, the absolute control over electoral institutions and the absence of international or nongovernmental observers (especially the American ones), represent just a few instances. But without any conclusive proof, they were doomed to remain stories. Only when the Internet started to become accessible again for the population of Uganda – after a national shutdown that was ordered by the ruling authorities two days prior to the elections – concrete pieces of evidence “demonstrating voting fraud”, forgeries and pre-marked ballots have been finally shared with the rest of the world. Even direct witnesses started to come forward, willing to publicly tell their personal experiences. This is the case of Ali Ozo, a resident of the capital’s suburbs, who reported how he was offered 50,000 shillings to vote for Museveni.
Videos and footages proved how corruption and clientelism were increasing in Uganda, representing enormous challenges to the correct functioning of democracy. The lack of fundamental democratic principles prevented ordinary citizens from expressing their individual views and the constraint of voters to passively support the same president. In fact, institutions, as well as elections, end up operating just as perfunctory mechanisms. Moreover, the non-transparence and the fraudulent activities perpetuated by the authorities generated an elevated public dissatisfaction, undermining belief in the government and endangering future political participation.
Where does Uganda go from here?
Even though Museveni “won” the election, his party and his persona undoubtedly suffered the loss of popular consent. Hostile approaches to preserve his authority have not met the usual tacit approval. As a matter of fact, young Ugandans fought for the right to express their vote, in order to ensure themselves a brighter future. So, now the question is: what happens next? Due to the unstable situation, the first major objective of the government will probably imply a stronger centralization of power, which will be finalized through the adoption of massive military budgets and human rights abuses.
But this time things may not go off without a hitch. Indeed, both the US and the EU refused to congratulate Museveni on the victory, describing his regime as “no longer a guarantee of Ugandan stability”. The aid of international countries could reveal crucial to drastically reduce the episodes of fraud and bribery and, therefore, increase the position of the country in the “Corruption Perceptions Index”. Indeed, the only chance the country has to tackle the democratic erosion that it’s currently facing is represented by the total abandonment of support to the authoritarian government from the Western Nations. Instead, their protection should be addressed to any opponent ready to respect and endorse democratic principles. In this way, anyone who is willing to: restore the system of checks and balances, guarantee the freedom of the media and implement policies that will ensure civil and political rights (strongly defended in Uganda’s constitution), will be finally given a fair shot.
Is Bobi Wine the man Uganda has been looking for?
As the main challenger in the 2021 elections, Bobi Wine has been a ray of hope for many voters in the country, but is he the president that the nation truly needs? Well, some believe that his dynamic and charismatic behavior might “turn him into tomorrow’s authoritarian ruler”, as Museveni has proved in the past. Nevertheless, his fighting against corruption and the willingness to finally see his birth country free from oppression, certainly is the signal of a great start. Indeed, even after having to endure unspeakable brutalities and life threats, he continued his battle against the malfeasances of the government.
But, whether Bobi Wine will be the right alternative as president or not, he undoubtedly triggered a sense of consciousness in the population’s minds. Uganda has found itself in an oppressed situation since its independence and, although there had been sparks of rebellion throughout the decades, we come now at a decisive point in the history of the country. Maybe Ugandan 2021 elections were not the appropriate time for a radical change, but they have certainly exposed the corruption of the government and spread awareness about the power that people possess against it. Looking at the future, we might only hope that these violations will be continuously brought to light, as the only efficient provision to finally rebuild the country on democratic principles.