One of the sticking points in the debate over the transparency and credibility of this year’s presidential election is over the announcement of the results.
Opposition candidate Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and the Interparty Cooperation (IPC) has declared time and again that his campaign team would announce its own results as part of their strategy to forestall rigging.
Besigye said in December that his campaign had set up a network of people who would monitor all polling stations across the country.
“Results are announced at polling stations,” he said. “My duty as a candidate is to tally my results. We shall announce what we would have compiled using the official declaration forms as Eng. Badru Kiggundu fidgets with figures.”
President Yoweri Museveni, a candidate who enjoys and sometimes abuses the powers of incumbency, has warned that Besigye will be arrested if he declares his own results.
“Nobody can announce results here, not even me. That will be a short cut to Luzira for any candidate who does that,” Museveni said at a press conference in December.
“Uganda is not Ivory Coast; It is not Kenya. Don’t expect what is happening or happened in these countries to happen here,” he added. “Uganda is a country led by people who have fought wars. You can’t play that game here. He may have his computers but the only institution charged with announcing electoral results is the national Electoral Commission.”
For its part the Electoral Commission has said the opposition or any other organisations are free to announce preliminary results as long they don’t purport to be announcing the final results.
My own sense is Besigye’s campaign and other opposition teams indeed have a right to tally the results announced at the polling stations (and share them with the public) and to ensure that the final results announced nationally by the Electoral Commission reflect what came from the polling stations.
The reason the law provides for votes to be counted at the polling station and announced there is to ensure transparency. In the past, ballot boxes disappeared from the polling stations before the votes had been counted. In other cases, agents opened up some boxes and removed ballots that did not favour their candidates. In 1980, Paulo Muwanga, the Chairman of the Military Commission, usurped the powers of the Electoral Commission and barred Returning Officers from announcing results. And, as happened in Kenya in December 2007, electoral bodies in Africa have been known to announce results that differed from what was announced at the polling stations.
My concern as we head towards the February 18 elections is not whether it is illegal for the opposition or the media to announce the results. They have a right to do so, as long as they provide sufficient contextual information along the way.
As mentioned in the Election Coverage Guidelines published by the African Centre for Media Excellence following a participatory process that involved different important players including media houses, civil society , media regulators, the Electoral Commission, and political parties, media houses can release results as they come in from the different polling stations or district tally centres:
“The reporters will clarify at all times that the results they are announcing are from, say, one quarter of polling stations; from the stronghold of Candidate X; the results are not yet confirmed by the Electoral Commission. In other words, the release of partial results should be done with sufficient context not to excite or mislead voters. Media houses must know, however, that it is the constitutional mandate of the Electoral Commission to announce the definitive results.”
There are many reasons why the opposition and the media should inform their members and the public about their independent tallies as the results begin trickling in. Left on its own a partisan electoral body could decide to play with the declarations from the polling stations in favour of a particular candidate. A partisan electoral commission could also decide to announce selectively results from areas where a particular candidate is in the lead, which could discourage the supporters of the challengers from remaining vigilant and guarding their vote or prepare the country for the ‘inevitability’ of the favoured candidate’s win.
From my experience with the 2006 elections in Uganda and the 2007 elections in Kenya, the major challenge for the media is a logistical one. No media house has the capacity to have a correspondent at each of the nearly 24,000 polling stations countrywide (In fact, in previous elections, the opposition parties too did not have agents at each of the polling stations!)
In those circumstances, it becomes very difficult to monitor the transparency and credibility of the election tallies.
One possibility would have been for independent media houses to cooperate in the deployment of correspondents to ensure that as many polling stations are covered. The problem here is that we have only a handful of independent media houses. A majority of radio stations, especially in the countryside, are owned by politicians or businessmen close to the ruling party. In any case, they don’t have that many correspondents to spread around.
However, mainstream media houses could still deploy correspondents strategically and also rely on credible monitors to tally results from polling stations in several major districts.
Even if they may not be able to have a correspondent or monitor at each of the polling stations, they should be able to have a record against which the Electoral Commission’s final results can be compared.
Tips for media on handling election results
• Be clear about the source of the results you are announcing. Are they from the Electoral Commission, independent monitors, the opposition, or your own results?
• Be clear what percentage of the total voters in a particular area the results you are announcing represent. For instance, if you are reporting results from a constituency with 500 polling stations, you could say with 200 stations reporting (or 40 percent), Candidate X is leading by 60 per cent.
• Refer to previous voting trends and the known support distribution. For instance, you could say the Candidate X is leading, but the results from the more remote polling stations, where his opponent has enjoyed considerable support, are not yet in.
• Compare your own results (if you have any) with those of the Electoral Commission, but do not add up the two, as you risk double-counting.
• When announcing results from one source (e.g. the opposition), compare them with your own tallies (if you have any) and those of the Electoral Commission.
• Make it clear that you are announcing partial results (if you don’t yet have the final results), and that the Electoral Commission is yet to release the final results.