COVID-19: A threat to democracy?

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only wrecking public health systems, global economies but also disrupting democracy and governance structures worldwide.[1]

It has come at a time when democracy is already under threat and it risks exacerbating the democratic rule. Ultimately, several governments including Uganda have used the pandemic crisis to extend the powers of the Executive Arm of Government to override others, questioning the independence of Parliament and the Judiciary. The corona crisis has the potential to unsettle the good democratic practices ranging from civil rights to elections.

Uganda’s political and economic arrangements are of a typical low-income nation in Sub-Saharan Africa. The country is under the leadership of a hybrid regime with regular general elections and a multiparty politics system but has high levels of corruption, authoritarian predispositions, political patronage, and patrimonial attributes.[2] The Country’s governance system is guided by the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, however, on several occasions, it has been amended to legitimise the actions of those who want to remain in power. This was questioned by the different actors including the Development Partners, the Civil Society Organisations, the Courts of Law, and the individuals. The corona pandemic has, therefore, found a struggling democracy and is capable of exposing more deficiencies in the democratic systems.

COVID-19 crisis and its impact on democracy in Uganda

Extreme measures to fight the coronavirus undermine the democratic space and affect the fundamental human rights and civil liberties that are provided by the Constitution.[3] Recently, the security agencies were showed by the media while using excessive force during the implementation of the Presidential directives in the management of the pandemic—beating and demeaning women who were vending foodstuffs on the streets of Kampala and other civilians.[4] [5] Besides, the corona pandemic has exposed corruption and a lack of political accountability. This has been depicted by the corruption scandals in the Office of the Prime Minister during the procurement of food relief for the vulnerable during the corona crisis.[6] Furthermore, the Parliament was involved in the irregular allocation of 10 billion shillings which was transferred to bank accounts of individual Members of Parliament with each member getting 20 million shillings.[7] Public funds are not supposed to be transferred to the accounts of individuals because it affects public accountability. The Court ruling instructed the Members of Parliament to return the money to the National Taskforce on COVID-19 or the District taskforces or the Parliamentary Commission which had dispatched the money.

Concerning voting, the Roadmap provided by the Electoral Commission suggests that Uganda is to hold the Presidential and Parliamentary elections on 11th May 2021.[8] The corona pandemic will most likely affect these elections since the date is so close and the virus is still with us. This was confirmed by the recent exclusive interview by NBS Television with the President when he asserted that it would be “madness” to allow electoral activities which involve public gatherings if the pandemic persists.

The Electoral Commission has already postponed the primary elections for the special interest groups from the village level to the national level as they have been affected.[9]  Referendum elections provide an opportunity for the citizens to democratically choose their leaders short of which the democratic institutions should be questioned.

As of now, nobody knows when the pandemic will end but so far we have learned new ways of doing things, for example, the use of digital technology to keep some official activities moving on. The presence of the internet presents an opportunity for countries like Uganda to stick to the set dates for the general elections. If the electoral commission must stick to the roadmap in a situation that the pandemic is still spreading, we must vote electronically to maintain social distancing procedures.

Nonetheless, the problematic question to deal with—is whether the country is ready for an electronic voting system. Do we have in place sufficient and reliable infrastructure? To what extent can such a process be free from data manipulation? More importantly, it is whether or not the electoral commission has sufficient funds to create a robust electronic voting system.

In a situation that the pandemic spreads up to the voting time in 2021, the country must take deliberate decisions which may involve a tradeoff. The EC has the option of doing a thorough preparation for an electronic voting system as early as now or risks suspending the elections. The dilemma is that postponing the elections to the time beyond January 2021 can result in an ‘emergency’ since the Constitution provides that they should be held towards the completion of the five years term in office.[10]

For some time, crises have been a test for self-governance.[11] Unlike the totalitarian regimes — which rely on instigating fear, coercion, and intimidation to control the masses, democracies are expected to rely on information and the consent of those being governed. Citizens can easily lose faith in their institutions if crises are not well handled.

Museveni’s administration, so far so good, has done great work in the management of the coronavirus spread but the independence of all the Arms of Government during this crisis must be respected.  Uganda’s leadership must ensure that the structures and institutions that lay the ground for democracy—the Electoral Commission, Parliament, the Courts of law to ensure that they remain fully functional amidst the corona pandemic so that the decisions of the Executive are well checked.

[1] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2020). How will the Coronavirus Reshape Democracy and Governance Globally? Accessed at: https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/04/06/how-will-coronavirus-reshape-democracy-and-governance-globally-pub-81470
[2] UNICEF Uganda (2018). Uganda: A Political Economy Analysis.
[3] Chapter Four of the Uganda Constitution of 1995.
[4] Daily Monitor, March 26 2020. Canes, teargas in Kampala over coronavirus. https://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Photos-that-will-compel-you-cancel-your-journey-Kampala/688334-5505362-g3u0ib/index.html
[5] Daily Monitor, April 30th (2020). MP Zaake transferred to Rubaga Hospital. https://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/MP-Zaake-transferred-Rubaga-hospital/688334-5538312-rcxer4z/index.html
[6] PML Daily, 9th April 2020. BREAKING! Four OPM officials including PS arrested in Coronavirus food relief procurement scandal. https://www.pmldaily.com/news/2020/04/breaking-four-opm-officials-including-ps-arrested-in-coronavirus-food-relief-procurement-scandal.html
[7] Daily Monitor, 9th April 2020. MPs fell in a trap by taking Shs20m- Museveni. https://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/MPs-fell-trap-by-taking-Shs20m-Museveni/688334-5537452-1b8gfl/index.html
[8] Uganda Electoral Commission. https://www.ec.or.ug/sites/default/files/2020-2021-general-elections/REVISED%20KEY%20MILESTONES%20FOR%20THE%202021%20GENERAL%20ELECTIONS%20ROADMAP.pdf
[9] Nile Post, April 2020. EC Postpones youth elections over corona virus. https://nilepost.co.ug/2020/04/04/ec-postpones-elections-over-coronavirus/
[10] Article 67 of the Uganda Constitution
[11] Larry Diamond (2020). America’s COVID-19 Disaster is a setback for democracy. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/americas-covid-19-disaster-setback-democracy/610102/

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