Referendum ends 20-year ban on political parties

Ugandans on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to repeal a two-decade ban on political parties in a national referendum that was, however, boycotted by the opposition, the electoral commission announced on Saturday.

A total of 92.5 percent of voters who participated in the plebiscite backed the reforms, based on returns from 99.6 percent of the polling stations.

"The commission hereby declares that the people of Uganda have adopted a multi-party political system henceforth," Badru Kiggundu, the head of the election commission, said.

The "no" vote accounted for only 7.5 percent of the ballots cast, with the overall turnout hovering at 47 percent, Kiggundu told reporters.

Although the strong "yes" vote was claimed as a victory for President Yoweri Museveni - who had campaigned to repeal the ban on parties - there were fears that the low turnout had dashed his hopes for a nationwide consensus.

His opponents, who have long called for the re-introduction of parties, but who called a boycott of the referendum, also claimed victory due to the low voter numbers. They said there could never be any justification for putting to a vote the fundamental right of association and assembly.

"The low turnout is a reflection of the decreasing support on the side of the president. We have reports of very low turnout from many places in the country despite vigorous campaigning by the president," Paul Ssemogerere, Democratic Party president, told IRIN.

Local and international observers cited poor civic education, general apathy and heavy rains that on Thursday in much of Uganda as other possible reasons for the poor turnout.

A spokesman for the president's "Movement" organisation, the only fully functional political entity in Uganda since Museveni came to power in 1986, said the results indicated the commitment of the government to democratic reform.

"We wanted the matter of opening up decided by the population and we know we have scored this, though the opposition tried so much to block it," Ofwono Opondo said.

"We also wanted to prove to the world that we wanted to open up. People were sceptical that after 19 years we would not open up. We have done it and we have found out that the people still believe in the Movement," the spokesman added.

Opposition legislator Omara Atubo told IRIN Museveni's desire for change was merely "a facade behind which he is trying to hide ambitions to rule for life".

Atubo cited last month's parliamentary decision to lift presidential term limits, effectively allowing Museveni to seek re-election during elections in 2006.

International observers gave the exercise a clean bill of health, and said it was handled in a transparent manner, although they noted that few people had actually cast ballots.

"It was free and fair, without any intimidation or people being forced to vote one way or the other, but there was a lower turnout than we expected," Peter Carr-Locke, a Canadian observer who monitored the polls in eastern Uganda, told IRIN by phone.

Museveni, who for two decades fought to retain his "no-party democracy" system, had vigorously campaigned for a "yes" vote, a u-turn that critics say was driven by his desire to appease the international community, which has grown weary of the slow pace of political transition.

The president on Saturday told diplomats that the victory of the "yes" side represented a decision by the people of Uganda.

"The option of using parliament to change the political system would have greatly offended the majority of the people of Uganda," he said.

He played down the low turnout or suggestions that the population boycotted the referendum.

"The most important thing is that the people were given an opportunity and those who took it up decided to open up political space by voting Yes. As far as the outcome is concerned, I am home and dry," the president said.