The open voting method that the Government has proposed for the upcoming LC1 and 2 elections in the various villages and parishes as provided for in the Local Government (Amendment) Act, 2016 is a disaster for democracy. The open voting procedure is contrary to the acceptable international standards and will affect social cohesion and unity. Lining up behind a preferred candidate to vote him or her into power, particularly in a multiparty democracy is not only primitive, it diminishes the power and right to vote for a candidate of one’s choice and can also lead to undue influence, violence and illegal coercion. Moreover, this method is clearly in contravention of our Constitution which in Article 68(1) of the Constitution of Uganda provides that: “At a public election or referendum, voting SHALL be by secret ballot using one ballot box at each polling station for all candidates in an election and for all sides in a referendum”.
According to the Convention on Standards of Democratic Elections, Electoral Rights and Freedoms of Member States of Commonwealth and Independent States 2007, the right to a secret ballot should not be limited in any way and by whatsoever. The Convention further spells out principles to apply during elections, one of which allows citizens to make their choice without influence, violence, threat to apply violence or illegal coercion.
Now, considering the perspective of women’s suffrage, open voting is a mechanism that will undermine the woman’s voice and right to fair democracy. This is a method which will unfairly exert influence upon the women forcing them to take part in or abstain from elections as well as crush their free expression of will, contrary to the Convention on Standards of Democratic Elections. It has been re-echoed that women who do not vote for their husbands’ choice candidates will be branded “disloyal” and as such will suffer intimidation and reprisal. There is also anecdotal evidence that suggests an increase in domestic violence owing to women using their freedom of choice to elect leaders, when we last held elections using this method. I dare say, most of the rural women are likely to opt out of voting all together, irrespective of the fact that Uganda is already grappling with low voter turnout. It is therefore out-rightly justified to say that the open voting method, will be a means of reinforcing the already gaping margin of discrimination between men and women.
The argument that conducting secret ballot elections for the villages and parishes is costly is simply a scape goat. Government can and has always found money for elections although unfortunately a lot of it has also found its way into individual pockets. Government is in as much a better position to fund secret ballot elections as it does when handing out golden handshakes to senior public servants! Parliament should have taken cognizance of other factors that affect open voting system instead of only considering financial costs involved in secret balloting.
On the other hand, women who have offered themselves to stand for LC1 and 2 positions in their respective villages and parishes will feel an even bigger pinch with the method of open vote elections than their male counterparts. With the current trend of monetizing elections at all levels, male candidates are more likely to hand out monetary benefits to their voters to entice them to line up behind them and with the lining up method it is highly unlikely that one who has received money from a candidate will not vote for them.
As an organization which, since its inception, has been at the forefront of promoting women’s leadership and advancing gender equality in decision making processes, Forum for Women in Democracy (FOWODE) is concerned that the lining up method is detrimental to our cause of ensuring the increased participation of women in the governance and political discourse. In this era where civil society and the world over has come out to decry gender discrimination, and to foster gender equality and empowerment of women, it is absurd that the Government is promoting and introducing such embryonic methods that are rather intended to pull Uganda several democratic years back.
In line with the Africa Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (Article 29 (3) that Uganda is signatory to, State Parties shall take all possible measures to encourage the full and active participation of women in the electoral process and ensure gender parity in representation at all levels, including legislatures. It is imperative that in the future, Parliament amends the Local Government (Amendment) Act 2014 and reverts to secret ballot in line with international standards for holding free and fair elections. In the current circumstances, government has a duty to ensure that peace prevails and that rights and freedoms are upheld as the citizens’, and in particular women, exercise their right to vote.
By Patricia Munabi Babiiha
Executive Director, Forum for Women in Democracy