Lots of good ideas for electoral reforms and some not-so-good

Change the way Uganda manages its electoral process to achieve free and fair elections and in turn ensure a more stable and inclusive political environment. That is a perennial story. It ebbs and flows depending on where we are in the cycle, but it never goes away.

That may change if most of the proposals that a cross-section of Ugandans adopted this past week are implemented. Sitting as the National Consultation on Free and Fair Elections, hundreds of people from all corners of the country haggled for three days and then released the Uganda Citizens’ Compact on Free and Fair Elections.

The Kampala meeting, a culmination of several regional consultations, generated proposals that are sensible, although some not quite.

A new independent and impartial Electoral Commission (EC), with each commissioner serving one term of seven years, should be constituted through an open public recruitment process, is one proposal. They suggest a three-stage recruitment process of commissioners: the Judicial Service Commission (why not the Public Service Commission?) recruits, Parliament vets, and the President appoints as a matter of ceremony.

This, of course, would take away the President’s power. It looks like Kenya is serving as an example on some of the elements suggested here. I have no quarrel with any of it. Today, God knows, Ugandans have no idea how President Museveni “sources” and appoints EC commissioners. Parliament, incredulously, makes it worse by sitting behind closed doors and curtains to vet those whose names the President has put forward.

Compile a clean verifiable voter register, keep the military out of electoral matters, stop the use of State House for ruling party work as is the case today, ministers must not be MPs, cut the obscenely large size of Parliament, all MPs representing special interest groups should be limited to two terms. Solid proposals all.

Now to the ideas that left me confused either because they are contradictory or their basis is unclear or even hostile – especially to private media.

“Ensuring law and order during elections should be exclusively the responsibility of the regular police, under the direction and supervision of the Electoral Commission,” says the document. The next paragraph wants the police during the campaigns and in all other aspects of the electoral process to be “monitored by the Electoral Commission”.

So the EC should not only direct and supervise the police, it should also monitor it. What does all this mean actually? Assuming it is clear, why saddle the EC with roles it has no competence to perform?

We are not done with the police though. The National Consultation, the group that met at Africana, wants to constitute an “independent police oversight body” to “monitor the role of the police in the electoral process”.
Ah, well!
At some point in the electoral process, “The President should relinquish tactical command and control of the armed forces to the Joint Chiefs” The little I know about these things, there has to be a substantive commander-in-chief at all times to issue final orders. So the better suggestion would be for the President to hand the power to, say, the Chief Justice. We assume the Chief Justice does not get excited and issue orders for a coup.

The most disturbing idea, though, has to do with forcing media, including private media, to cover all parties equally. “The Electoral Commission should assume oversight role over the media during elections period ensuring that all competing parties have equal access to the media,” the document says. And adds: “There should be penalties for media houses that fail to comply with the constitutional requirement for equal, fair and balanced coverage”, and that the “licensing regime should be used to secure compliance”.

The EC should be left to focus on more essential activities like having a clean voter roll and civil society can monitor media. That said, there is no constitutional requirement for private media to provide equal access to all competing parties.

It is the professional and sensible thing to do, but it is not a constitutional obligation – this only applies to public or state media like UBC. So perish the thought. If the talk is about those private radio stations that agree to host Opposition politicians and then are forced to abandon the plan by RDCs, that is a separate matter.

The terrible suggestion therefore that licensing should be used as a stick falls by the wayside.

A caution: suggestions such as this once enacted mean that licensing can be used and abused beyond the electoral season to rein in “offending” media outlets. Already, the government is thinking about using licensing to tightly control newspapers this proposal would be a godsend.
The National Consultation may want to worry more about the EC’s technology.

Who identifies the technology (hardware and software) needed, who procures, who installs, who maintains, who has access who inputs, who processes and who outputs the data where is the backupservers located, who has access? Let’s put it this way all may look neat and watertight with observers and party agents everywhere, yet the entire system that truly matters is remotely run by a battery of secret and highly trained techies.

Mr Tabaire is the co-founder and director of programmes at African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala.

SOURCE: Daily Monitor

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