The result of the Ugandan presidential which took place on January 14, 2021, was obvious.
A resounding victory for the incumbent president, Yoweri Museveni, with reportedly over 58% of the vote prevented a much more complicated second round. The result is rather unsurprising in a state in which the president has held power since 1986 and which consistently ranks low in indexes of political freedoms, civil liberties, and democracy. Museveni holding office for the sixth term is likely to generate further resentment among the general population, but his strong grip on the security apparatus will help him maintaining stability. This is in the interest of the major donors, although it contradicts the democratic principles the Western actors, such as the European Union (EU), claim to uphold.
In any election following the democratic process, the role of election observers is fundamental.
They monitor and report on the conduct of the election procedures in an attempt to ascertain their legitimacy, including the level of good conduct and transparency. This is why expertise is fundamental in any election observation mission.
However, in the case of the 2021 Ugandan presidential election, the EU’s conduct on monitoring the voting and counting processes was questionable at best. Despite assurances of the Ugandan authorities in November 2020 that an invitation to observe the election had been sent, the EU representatives insisted that they had not received such an invitation. Instead of acting on the issue and preparing an expert observation mission, the EU did not act. The inconsistency of the position of the EU officials became clear when they admitted that the main reasons why they were not prepared to send an expert observation included Uganda not having adopted the recommendations to improve election practices EU observation missions had made previously, including in 2016, and, secondly, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Instead, the EU assembled a diplomatic team to informally observe the election procedures.
Although the team toured major districts in Uganda, its expertise, ability, and dedication to conduct proper election observation were left wanting. While the team is expected to produce an internal EU report, its initial reaction appears to have gone against the recommendations of the previous EU expert observation missions in Uganda. The EU mission’s apparent position on the conduct of the election was revealed by the Head of the European Union (EU) Delegation in Uganda, Ambassador Atillio Pacifici, who characterized it as “impressive”. He also commended the professionalism of the Ugandan Electoral Commission officials which can be interpreted to contradict some of the earlier reasons given to explain why an expert observer mission had not been dispatched. From an ethical standpoint praising an election in a repressive state in which opposition candidates have not been provided a fair chance is condemnable especially because it goes against the EU’s principles of promoting democracy and human rights.
The EU ambassador’s reaction to the Ugandan presidential election also exposes the inherent hypocrisy in the EU’s position.
It is clear that instead of pursuing a sustained effort for democratization and increased election credibility and legitimacy in Uganda by conducting proper election observation the EU opted for a diplomatic tour which endorsed the prevailing politics of fear and repressive authoritarian stability that go against its own stated principles. This continues a dangerous trend, which has already been exposed in other recent elections in Africa and elsewhere, undermining the EU’s role as an important soft power actor and defender of democracy and human rights. EU’s conduct concerning elections especially in authoritarian states or limited democracies generates an image of hypocrisy in its commitment towards advancing democracy on the world stage.
As a result, there is a need for the EU to rethink its approach on election observation and responding to elections it has monitored. Sending diplomats on a tour instead of a team of professional expert election observers demonstrates a lack of commitment to promoting democracy and human rights elsewhere in the world. It creates an impression of weakness and more importantly undermines the EU’s reputation and credibility to stand for the very values it was ostensibly founded upon.
Further Reading: Isaac Mufumba, “We were not invited to observe polls, EU says”, Daily Monitor, November 21, 2020. The East African, “We’re impressed with well-organised Uganda poll, says EU”, January 16, 2021. European Union Election Observation Mission, “Final Report: Uganda Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Council Elections”, April 2016.
The opinions expressed in this blog are solely the authors’ point of view and do not bind the Center for International Studies, its Director or any other researcher. Incumbent President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda / photo by Russell Watkins/Department for International Development / CC BY-SA 2.0
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