Do International observers ensure credible elections?

Former DP President, Dr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere (C), and CHUSS Principal, Prof. Edward K. Kirumira (L), participated in the dialogue

As is now the norm, various international organisations will have sent election monitors to Uganda for the February 2016 polls. But what role do such missions play? Do they help to ensure credible Prof. Justin Willis was the key presenterelections? Or do they sometimes fear calling problematic elections into question and, as a result, help to legitimise elections that are neither free nor fair?  

In 1980, Uganda witnessed one of the earliest and most controversial election observation missions when a Commonwealth team judged that year’s election “a valid electoral exercise.” Many Ugandans disagreed. Indeed, it was the belief that the elections were rigged that prompted President Yoweri Museveni to begin a long and ultimately successful guerrilla war against the government of Dr Milton Obote, whose Uganda People Congress (UPC) had been declared the winner.

Stories of malpractice in those elections are commonplace, with the allegation of a conspiracy by Tanzania, Britain or the Commonwealth to return Obote to power. The 1980 election, as examined by Prof. Justin Willis et al, in a paper titled; “A Valid Electoral Exercise”: Uganda’s 1980 Election and the Rise of International Election Observation”, offers useful insights into Uganda’s electoral process and the challenges regularly faced by international election monitors. Prof. Justin Willis from the Department of History, University of Durham presented the paper at a public dialogue held at Makerere University on 26th November, 2015.  

In the paper, the authors contend that international election observers have consistently found themselves faced with the difficult choice of either declaring a poor election to be “free and fair”, and thus disappointing civil society groups and the opposition, or calling the result into question, with the associated threat of political instability. According to the authors, it is often hard to reject the official results, lest this fuels disorder and instability. “Instead, observers resort to an approach that identifies and deflates problems. That observers may inadvertently shore up the legitimacy of electoral authoritarian regimes when they do this, is not because they are simple ‘apologists’ for such regimes, but is instead a structural consequence of the reliance on elections to establish lawful order given limited political influence and feasible options.”

The authors further explain that the need to maintain good ties with African leaders, and the desire to maintain political stability at all costs undermines the credibility of observers. “The Commonwealth observer mission in the 1980 election was reluctant to shatter the illusion that the polls had been credible, because this would have bred instability, undermining the very point of the process, which was to usher in a new era of orderly government.”  These and many other shortcomings stated by the authors raise several questions on the relevance of elections and international monitors.

During the dialogue, participants expressed divergent views on Uganda’s electoral process.  

The discussant, Prof. John-Jean Barya from the School of Law, argued that election observers are a clear indication of Al-Hajji Kirunda Kivejinja was the Guest of Honourlack of independence and underdevelopment. “If political parties are strong, you don’t need election observers. Election monitoring is an artificial exercise that does not deal with internal problems,” he said.  

The Moderator, Prof. Mwambutsya Ndebesa, blamed the lack of a democratic electoral process on securitization of politics. “There is a tendency to suspend normal procedure in the interest of security.  We are more concerned about security than democracy,” he said, giving an example of the 2006 petition in which former Forum for Democratic Change President, Dr Kizza Besigye, challenged the validity of the results of the Presidential election but was dismissed on grounds that the irregularities did not substantially affect the final outcome.

In his remarks, former Democratic Party President, Dr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, gave an overview of the events that led to the controversial 1980 election. He underscored the relevance of international observers but advised that their verdict should always be scrutinised. “It’s good that they come but whatever they say should be a subject of scrutiny. Some observers have good intentions and their recommendations can improve situations,” he explained. He said the 1980 election is a good reference for analysing the current political challenges. Dr Ssemogerere called for the construction of a democratic culture, noting that militarisation is not good for leadership.

The Guest of Honour, Third Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for East African Affairs, Al-Hajji Kirunda Kivejinja, said observers have predetermined interests and will always be there as long as countries are weak. “Everybody will take advantage of an opportunity. We should therefore strengthen our capacity to regulate those opportunities,” he advised.

The Principal of CHUSS, Prof. Edward Kirumira, appreciated participants, specifically the guest of honour and former DP President for committing time to deliberate on matters on national importance.

The dialogue was organized by the departments of Development Studies and History. It was coordinated by the Head, Department of Development Studies, Assoc. Prof. Godfrey Asiimwe.

See Prof. Justin Willi's full paper below



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