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Does access to manifesto information influence voters’ decisions?

Access to information empowers the electorate to be well informed about political processes with due regard to their best interests: to elect political office holders; to participate in decision-making processes on the implementation of laws and policies; and to hold public officials accountable for their acts or omissions in the execution of their duties. Access to information is a foundational requirement of the practice of democratic governance. The AU guidelines on access to information and elections rightly stated that: “No democratic government can survive without accountability and the basic postulate of accountability is that people should have information about the functioning of government”.

Uganda went to the polls on 14th January 2021 to cast their votes for presidential and parliamentary positions. Prior to this Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) conducted an analysis of the ‘State of Access to Manifesto Information in Uganda’; a review that examined the extent to which political candidates and political parties’ manifestos were accessed by the electorate ahead of the 2021 Uganda general elections. Among its findings, the report revealed that only 17% voters said that their choice of the candidate they planned to vote for was informed by factors that were not necessarily reflected in political manifestos. Furthermore, 46% of the voters regarded manifesto documents as reliable tools for assessing the performance of elected leaders. This indicates that access to information, in this regard access to manifesto information and ‘promises’ made by political candidates and political parties, is key in influencing the decisions of voters.

The presidential election outcomes speak towards this conclusion as well. Of the 11 candidates that were contesting, the 1st to the 5th best performers were candidates representing political parties whose manifesto information had, to a greater extent, been shared with the electorate. This could suggest that independent candidates did not perform well in this general election because they were unable to discloses their ‘promises’ and agendas to citizens. Four weeks prior to the general elections, not all independent candidates had shared their manifestos; some being sharing them just a week before the elections as was the case with independent candidates John Katumba. Fred Mwesigye and Willy Mayambala, who did not have manifestos, scored second last and last compared to others.

The assessment further revealed that 46% of the voters regarded manifestos as reliable tools for assessing the performance of elected leaders.  The parliamentary elections have resulted in only 170 out of over 400 MPs having been confirmed to have been re-elected back to office. No minister has been re-elected in the Buganda sub-region, only two out of five Youth MPs have been re-elected and only two out of nine MPs from Kampala City have been re-elected. This invites for further discussion as to whether the failure to acquire re-election is linked to failure to fulfill the outgoing candidates’ previous manifestos.

Moving forward, AFIC recommends that:

  • Candidates should endeavor to make and share manifestos in languages and formats that are accessible for all, including people with disabilities. Without information on what candidates and political parties are promising, voters have no clear basis to make informed choices.
  • Elected leaders should make effort to continuously report back to the electorate on the progress as laid out in their manifestos. Most importantly, while serving, public interest supersedes personal interest where elected leaders should be compelled to deliver on their promises in their manifestos and not forget to actively involve citizens in decision making processes at all levels.
  • Citizens should pay attention to the commitments made by political candidates and political parties in their manifestos because these forms the basis of what they will (be expected to) implement once they are elected. This will help voters identify candidates with the most realistic proposals.
  • Upon assuming office, elected leaders should endeavor to implement programmes based on the policy and service delivery commitments made in their manifestos to avoid duplication and wasting of public resources.
  • Civil society organizations and development partners should support and facilitate interventions that focus on empowering the demand side, so they may participate in discussions and debates on social service delivery.
  • Elected leaders should endeavor to engage with the people they serve. Timely sharing of accurate information gives citizens an opportunity to be informed and the ability to track progress of implementation of delivery of services.
  • Electoral actors such as civil society organizations, and religious and cultural leaders have a role to play in sensitizing the electorate about their right to demand for manifestos from candidates. Civic leaders have an opportunity to influence how political candidates utilize information and what information they share on public platforms.
  • Civil society actors should continuously engage the citizens, educate them on the importance of manifestos and how they can use them to demand for progress on the implementation of promises in the manifestos from their leaders.

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