Tyler Falish is an intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program, and a student in Fordham University’s Graduate Program in International Political Economy & Development.
In late February, Yoweri Museveni was elected to his fifth term as Uganda’s president, extending a reign that officially began in 1986, but was preceded by years as an influential guerilla leader. The New York Times characterized the election as “widely criticized.” The main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), had good reason to cry foul as party candidate Kizza Besigye was arrested twice in two days during the voting, and has been under house arrest almost continuously since the election on February 18.
Further criticism came from some of the electoral observers. The European Union (EU) deployed a mission comprised of 137 observers to Uganda, and the EU Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) released a preliminary report on February 20, highlighting the first ever live presidential debates and “vibrant campaign events,” but bemoaning the “intimidation and harassment of [the] opposition,” the fact that polls in opposition strongholds like the capital, Kampala, opened hours late, and that access to social media was blocked on the day of the election. Observers from the Commonwealth (an intergovernmental organization consisting mostly of former territories of the British Empire), with a tendency to place a positive spin on polls, said the election “fell short of meeting some key democratic benchmarks.”
The African Union Election Observer Mission (AUEOM) praised Ugandans for their turnout, and described the election itself as “largely peaceful, but not without shortcomings,” ultimately endorsing the poll. The East African Community (EAC) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) regarded the election as “generally free and fair.” However, as senior EU observer Jo Leinen quipped, “Free and fair are categories with large margins.” As the opposition plans to challenge the election results in court, what impact, if any, will the assessment of the various electoral observer groups have on the perceived legitimacy of the election outcome? Although it may not be immediately apparent, it is possible that judgement passed by electoral observer missions has the long-term effect of emboldening the opposition.
Electoral observers are invited by the host country, and there is little doubt that their presence inspires some additional confidence in the electoral process. But does the incumbent—especially a deeply entrenched incumbent—risk anything by extending that invitation? The EU has already stated that it will not send electoral observers to the Republic of Congo for the presidential election later this month, citing the paucity of recent electoral reforms, and the treatment of opposition party members. President Denis Sassou Nguesso has been in power since 1979, with the exception of a hiatus from 1992 to 1997 that ended with a brief civil war and ultimately the reclamation of his role. In response to the EU’s snub, the Congolese government replied, “whomever does not observe cannot judge.” In some cases, staying home might say more than a carefully worded statement.