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Low voter turn up: Making sense of Makerere University’s last November online polls

By An Executive Editor

Late last year, Alionzi Lawrence alias Dangote was declared winner of Makerere University guild race after beating seven other contestants.
Alionzi garnered 5,839 votes in the online voting exercise that ended with him being declared winner on Wednesday night while his closest contender Ibra Hussein got 2,079 votes.

The other contestants were Justus Tukamushaba who got 1,758 votes, Blessious Namirembe who got 359 votes and Calton Muhinda garnered 23 8votes.

Others are Christopher Ronald Mugisa who got 106 votes, Honest Natumanya who walked away with 24 votes and Edward Nalwangu who got 37 votes.

These are less than 13, 000 votes 27, 000 who showed interest in voting. This is largely the same voting pattern even in physical voting. Almost (if not all) all students of Makerere University have smartphones, computers or both.

So, why would they fail to vote from the comfort of their homes or hostels?

We put these questions to Paul Bukenya, the National Electoral Commission Spokesperson and Charity Ahimbisibwe,   the Head of Electoral Laws Institute in Uganda.   

Kampala Gazette: Does the Commission take interest in University polls?

Bukenya: Of course where the institution has a culture of election, of electing leaders we definitely take interest because they are supporting the wider goal of building a system of electing leaders at the various levels. So, institutions which organize elections are of interest to us which is why we have also supported them many times with ballot boxes and so on. So, as the national election management body, all innovations or initiatives to build a culture of electing leaders or elections is of interest to us. It supports our wider voter education objective, building and strengthening civic awareness because preparing to participate in elective politics become of interest to us. We don’t organize those elections but as and when we are engaged, we support them to organize elections in accordance with their laws.

In respect to virtual and all that, definitely we take interest in all that because they facilitate free, fair and participatory elections. So, the answer to the question is Yes. We take interest in these elections.

Kampala Gazette: What lessons does the Commission draw from this virtual election?

Bukenya: We learn lessons definitely, including lessons from the use of technology in elections: how does it work out, what was the participation like, how do they handle issues when they are remote and complaint management, the voter turn up, invalid votes, valid votes. So, such things become of interest to us. The Commission has been making progress in adopting technology in elections. We have actually been leaders in innovation. Actually these institutions are learning from us but being an open world where there are, we take interest but also, we take note of the law. The laws that govern elections, most especially the law that will require for adoption of the use of technology which is why we are moving progressively.

Kampala Gazette: Why would voters fail to turn up yet literally the only requirement is tapping the voting button?

Bukenya: Voting in Uganda is not compulsory. As long as it is not compulsory, while the organizers may do all the necessary voter education, the decision to vote really rests with the voter and they have a duty to vote but the law doesn’t force them to do it. So, I think that’s where we are both at the national level and these other institutions, everyone does their part and at the end of it all, someone says they should not vote. So, it remains a challenge. So, we need to learn from it and work together to get a solution.

Ahimbisibwe (on voter turn up): ….I am also curious. Did the EC tell students to vote? Did they do voter education? Were students being encouraged to vote? Then secondly, were the students feeling that the ground was level for them to participate because at least from everything that we read, and everything that we saw, the students felt alienated, especially those that came from opposing political parties. DP felt sidelined, NUP felt threatened (to the extent when the VC wrote that letter saying he would allow opposition candidates to fill a candidate) the students who could probably have supported a candidate from opposition because the culture of opposition at the university is a natural culture. University is an academic space where challenge to ideas happens naturally. So, it is only natural that opposition exists in every university even if you went to any African university, a European university, ideas are generated in universities because they oppose an existing position. So, if opposing an idea in an existing format is dangerous to the academics, to the participants in the field or even in just the atmosphere, it threatens the students from participating. Participation is one of the cardinal principles of free, fair and credible election. We have about 4 tenets: transparency, participation, the freedom to associate and to assemble, freedom for opinion, and the freedom for expression. Once any of these freedoms/tenets are threatened (and in this case you see that transparency was threatened, you can also see clearly that participation was threatened – because those numbers are telling you that participation was low… participation is threatened by about four factors: lack of voter education, lack of transparency, etc ..If the people are not confident that the way you are going to transmit results to the final tally is transparent, they don’t participate because they feel defeated at the start that “my vote doesn’t count”. That before I went I cast it (the vote), I know what the end result would be. It’s going to be the choice of the one who is engineering whatever results they want to come out but once you are able to demonstrate to them that the process of transmitting results is transparent, then they will participate because they know that then I can follow my vote to the last minute. So, until those tenets are dealt with, even at university level or at the national level, we cannot talk of free, fair and credible elections.

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