Presidential elections 2016: Ignore online community at your own risk

This commentary is republished with permission from The CEO Magazine.


By Muheereza Kyamutetera

On June 26th 2015, The CEO Magazine published an opinion poll in which 44.54%, of the polled respondents, said they would vote John Patrick Amama Mbabazi as president, if elections were held this month.

In the poll that sampled Five Hundred Forty One (541) respondents aged above 17 years, both Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and Kiiza Besigye tied, with 111 respondents (24.24%) saying they would vote them for president. Only 32 respondents (6.99%) said they would vote for Mugisha Muntu.

Mbabazi screen shotThe poll was conducted via Survey Monkey one of the most popular online surveying tools and was based on how the respondents would rate 4 of the main potential contenders drawn from 2 of the country’s strongest parties i.e National Resistance Movement (NRM) and Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).

The results of the online opinion poll received wide-ranging reviews- the majority positive but with a good measure of fault-finding criticisms. A couple of commentators presented a number of shortcomings- some valid and others not. One recurring limitation was the claim that in a country like Uganda, online polls are not a reliable predictor of a national election, mainly because the online community, largely belongs to the class of urban/elite voters, who never make it to the polling station on the voting day.

Purveyors of this argument reason that a more representative opinion poll would have to future a good amount of rural voters who are the ‘real’ voters. They reasoned that past elections have been decided in the rural ballot boxes and not by the urban voters who are busy chasing other agendas.

Urban Low Voter Turnout, High Voter Numbers

If you do not apply much thinking, this reasoning may sound appealing, but if you analyze deeply, there is a revealing pattern that every election strategist should not and cannot ignore. True, in the just ended 2014 National Housing and Population census, out of a total of 34,856,813 Ugandans, 28,430,800 Ugandans were reported to be living in rural areas, while urban dwellers were only 6,426,013. Kampala Capital city reported a population of 1,516,210 Ugandans. One can easily and quickly conjecture that since rural dwellers are nearly 5 times the number of urban dwellers, then the urbanites are not a deciding factor in elections.

Translating this same thinking to the online/digital community is not only simplistic but also displays huge amounts of ignorance of how fast the digital environment is changing- not only in Uganda but across the world. Trying to use the 2011 elections as a benchmark for 2016 is almost akin to comparing apples and oranges.

First of all, it is not necessarily true that urban voters do not vote; in my view, where urban centers are lacking in voter turnout, they compensate in terms of voter volumes!!

Let’s use the 2011 Presidential Elections as a bench-mark. 8,272,760 ballots were cast, out of 13,954,129 registered voters, translating into average voter turnout of 59.29%. Let us then compare the national average with Kampala and Wakiso, which are arguably Uganda’s most urbanized districts and combined, had 13.8% of the total registered voters.

Whereas it is true that Kampala, with a voter turnout of 42.5% was probably the worst in voter turnout but with 501,820 out of 1,180,522 registered voters turning out to vote, in absolute numbers, there were 9 times more votes cast than in Kyegegwa District, whose voter turnout was 70% (53,897 votes were cast, out of 76,921 registered voters).

Wakiso District where 356,189 ballots were cast out of a total 749,470 registered voters (47.53% voter turnout) had 3 times more voters than Mbale where 119,928 ballots were cast, out of 217,467 registered votes (52.2% voter turnout).

Outside Kampala and Wakiso districts, 8 out of 10, of Uganda’s next most populous districts are home to some of Uganda’s largest towns. According to the 2014 census, Uganda’s 12 most populous districts are: Wakiso (2,007,700), Kampala (1,516,210), Kibaale (788,714), Arua (785,189) and Kasese (702,029). Others are: Mubende (688,819), Mukono (599,817), Hoima (573,903), Kabale (534,160), Tororo (526,378), Rakai (518,008) and Iganga (506,388). The above 12 districts combined, have 28% of the entire Ugandan population.

Other than the volumes advantage, urban/elite voters- are concentrated, connected, and easier to reach and communicate to; you only need to give them a reason to vote and they will vote.

Consistent Poor Turnout Since 1996

I actually think the question of urban/elite voters has been deliberately side-stepped. Poor voter turnout has common problem across all social economic classes. For example, between 1996 and 2011, voter turnout has year-on-year deteriorated by 14 percentage points- from 72.9% to 59.29%.

Precisely, in 1996, out of a total 8,492,231 registered voters, 6,193,816 were cast (72.9% voter turnout). In 2001, voter turnout reduced to 69.7%- 7,511,606 votes was cast out of 10,775,836 registered voters. In 2006, Voter turnout was 68%- a total of 7,106,536 votes were cast out of a total 10,450,788 registered voters. In the last election (2011), Voter turnout was 8,272,760 out of a total registered 13,954,129 voters (59.29% voter turnout).

The Question is why are more and more Ugandans losing interest in elections; because once upon a time, in the 2001 even Kampala had a voter turn-out of 72.8%- how did it get to 42% in 2011?

Ignore the online audience at your own peril

FDC-PageRegarding the relevance of the online audience and if they indeed are real game changers, the real devil is in the detail. According to Uganda Communications Commission, by end of December 2014, there were 20,365,941 mobile phone subscribers. At a population of 34,856,813, tele-density stands at 58.4%. That means that between 2011 when we last had the presidential elections, mobile phone subscriptions have grown by 35.6% from 15,019,129 to 20,365,941 connections. By Comparison, according to estimates from Uganda Bureau of Statistics, the population has grown by 7.5% from 32.5million in 2011 to 34.8million; meaning mobile phone subscription has grown or is growing nearly 5 times more than the population.

Over the same period, total internet subscriptions have grown by 521.4% from 934,758 subscribers to 5,808,330 subscribers. This is mainly driven by mobile internet subscriptions that have grown by 570% from 850,200 to 5,694,930 as of between June 2011 and December 2014. As a result, internet users have grown by 132% from 4,662,240 to 10,812,888.

Loosely translated, it means the addressable population for any communicator, marketer or election strategist, has grown by 132%. The complete voter register is not yet out, but it is expected to be in the region of 15,000,000 , up from 13,954,129 in 2011. Given that we have 10,812,888 internet users, you would have to be foolish to say the online audience doesn’t matter.

Just think about this: an online population of 10,812,888 people is greater than the population of Uganda’s 12 most populous districts (Wakiso, Kampala, Kibaale, Arua, Kasese, Mubende, Mukono, Hoima, Kabale, Tororo, Rakai and Iganga) who combined have a population of 9,747,315.

More time spent online

Sheer numbers aside a Uganda All Media Products Survey (UAMPS) research released by Ipsos in 2013, on internet usage shows that 33% of Ugandans reported using the internet several times a day and additional 33%- 2to 3 times a week. In total 66% of Ugandans reported using the internet more than 3 times a week. In addition, 39% reported spending 1-3 hours on every visit, while 52% reported spending between 15 minutes to 1 hour on every visit. That was 3 years ago, a lot has since changed. More and more Ugandans are spending more time online.

53% reported using the internet mainly for emails while 50% reported being on social media. The 18-29 age group reported more social media activity than any other age group. In the study 85% reported Facebook being the most dominant social media platform used, while 32% reported being on Google+ and 29% on Twitter.

All the above are very powerful statistics/insights that should be harnessed by any communicator, market or for that matter election strategist to deliver a power communication campaign.

For those that know how to leverage online platforms, online communication has proved to be cost efficient, flexible, and is also known for its interactivity and 2-way communication. Over and above, it is also easy to measure and monitor results.

Lastly, online communication is less susceptible to being pulled down by the competition, so you maximize your spend.


The author is Editorial Director, The CEO Magazine and a Digital Strategist.

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