The forthcoming parliamentary by-election in Bukanga county in Isingiro district has placed the Electoral Commission (EC) into sharp focus, following accusations it is following the whims of the ruling NRM party.
The by-election, called to find a successor to fallen MP Gregory Matovu, had been scheduled to kick-off with candidate nominations on November 5 and 6.
However, the EC last week postponed the nomination to November 11 and 12, with EC Chairman Badru Kiggundu blaming this on the late release of money by the ministry of Finance.
The changes coincide with wrangles in the NRM, over the election of former MP Nathan Byanyima in the October 25 party primary. Party functionaries have been struggling to get Stephen Kangwagye back into the contest, after he lost to Byanyima.
Byanyima, one of the nine candidates in the NRM primaries, said on Friday that the funds issue was a cover up by the EC.
"The EC gave the excuse of money as a cover-up but I can say that everything was being determined from Plot 10, Kyadondo road [NRM headquarters]," Byanyima said.
His comments have prompted the opposition to react angrily, accusing the EC of working on the whims of the NRM. First off the blocks, the Democratic Party (DP) blasted the EC.
"The EC showed us that it is not independent but operates on the interests of the NRM. It is surprising that EC can postpone its programme because the ruling party has not sorted out its house," said Immam Makumbi, DP Vice President (Western).
Makumbi added that the DP was contemplating suing the EC for the financial losses incurred by its candidate Shafiq Bembe. FDC Women league leader Ingrid Turinawe said the EC was ready to play in the NRM's favour.
"They changed the nomination dates but not the election day; that means that we are left with 10 days for the campaigns," Turinawe said.
Turinawe later said they were considering advising FDC candidate Baker Matsiko to boycott the election, as it had been organised for the NRM candidate. Asked about these contentions, EC deputy spokesperson, Paul Bukenya, insisted the commission's financial problems were well documented.
"Funds were not ready, that is a fact; there is no other motive. Party disagreements cannot stop us from conducting electoral activities. We ran the Buhweju by-election on credit, and that is on the record," he said.
He advised the aspiring candidates to prepare to present themselves before the EC for nomination. Byanyima contested in the NRM primaries with eight other candidates and won with 25,435 votes, ahead of Kangwagye, a nephew to President Museveni, at 24,909 votes. According to Byanyima, the polls were marred by gross irregularities ranging from violence, voter bribery and inflated voters' registers.
We have learnt that when the NRM deputy EC chief, Elijah Mushemeza, realised some discrepancies, he tasked his commissioners to investigate. A day after Byanyima was declared winner, a team of 60 people, led by the Isingiro NRM chairman Maj Stephen Rwakanuuma and Kangwagye went to Rwakitura to complain that Byanyima had rigged in his home sub-county of Ngarama.
Museveni immediately tasked NRM Vice Chairman Moses Kigongo and police chief Gen Kale Kayihura to investigate the claims. As Kigongo and former Mbarara municipality MP Arimpa Kigyagi travelled to the two contested areas, Mushemeza endorsed Byanyima as the party's flag bearer. However, several hours later Dr Ruhakana Rugunda invited all the NRM primaries' aspirants for a way forward.
At this meeting, held at NRM headquarters in Kampala, the party functionaries agreed to a repeat of the elections throughout the constituency. Later, an undated statement by Rugunda called for fresh results for only Ngarama sub-county for November 8, accepting the rest of the results.
The move saw six of the candidates namely Aaron Tuhairwe Turahi, Benon Matsiko Kyampa, David Abahaire, John Bosco Mubiru, Honorato Muhanguzi and Byanyima denounce Rugunda.
"The said [statement by Rugunda] totally disregards the five petitions filed by the various candidates with the NRM Electoral Commission during the campaigns and after the elections.
"It was regrettably written in favour of [Kangwagye], whose interests the NRM party has selectively decided to protect," a joint statement by the six candidates reads in part.
When contacted over the weekend, Rugunda told The Observer that the re-run was ordered in the spirit of giving all candidates an equal opportunity to freely participate in the election. The party also replaced its returning officer in Isingiro, Jackson Twongirwe with Lawrence Mayambala from the party headquarters to oversee the re-run.
Reasoning that they had not been given a fair hearing during the Kigongo investigations, the candidates called for a boycott of the repeated elections in Ngarama sub-county.
"Under normal circumstances, if there were malpractices in Ngarama, it would affect the outcome of the entire exercise and therefore, a repeat of the election would have been conducted in the entire county," Byanyima reasoned.
Byanyima's supporters also staged a demonstration, condemning the party leadership of trying to influence the primaries in favour of Kangwagye, who had at the time hit the campaign trail, urging his supporters to turn up and vote.
The re-run went on on Friday after Byanyima unsuccessfully tried to secure a court injunction to block it. Voter turnout was reportedly low amidst heavy police deployment, as another candidate Jeremiah Birungi Kamurali pulled out of the election that was eventually won by Kangwagye.