Why Uganda should move away from a winner-take-all electoral system in favour of proportional representation
I argued in last week’s column that in Uganda’s specific context of mass poverty, electoral competition tends to eliminate public-spirited candidates (or patriots) in favour of crooks. Therefore as our democracy deepens, the share of crooks in parliament will consistently increase at the expense of patriots. Indeed, many patriots will turn to crooked methods to remain in politics. Rather than democracy producing accountability, it is actually producing government by theft.
To minimise this degeneration, Uganda needs electoral reforms that will insulate individual candidates from the pressure of electoral competition. In this regard, our electoral rules should be based on proportional representation as happens in South Africa, Rwanda, and many European countries. Rather than individuals directly running for seats in parliament, we need political parties to be the contestants. These parties can have lists of individuals they intend to send to parliament, so voters will chose the MPs indirectly.
The biggest source of electoral corruption in Uganda is not the supply of bribes from above by politicians but the demand for them from below by voters. I am inclined to view our MPs as victims and not architects of this electoral context of mass poverty and traditional values.
For example, I was in Fort Portal last week at a function where the kingdom anthem was sung. It refers to the king as “agutamba” (one who helps during times of need), “omwebiingwa” (one to whom everyone runs in times of trouble) and “omukumanfuzi” (one who takes care of orphans).
Our people look at the leader as a source of solutions to their problems, not only through public policy implemented by impersonal institutions but also personally from his hand. When you see President YoweriMuseveni giving cash handouts to individuals and groups, he is actually responding to the public expectations of him as their leader. Many people dismiss this argument saying it is an undisguised attempt to justify the president’s abuse of public funds. However, any elected official in Uganda (and Africa) who does not bend to this cultural reality will come to tears when votes are counted.
Our MPs are expected to meet the personal needs of their constituents and not doing so is seen as being wrong and not being a true leader. They are expected to attend and contribute generously to fundraisings for churches, clinics, schools, roads and bridges in their constituencies and to also attend to personal problems such as meeting funeral expenses and paying school fees and medical bills of their constituents – all on their personal incomes. The voters see it as the responsibility of their elected politicians to meet these costs even at public expense; so they will vote for a politician who pillages the public treasury and shares his or her “loot” with them.
The best way to undermine incentives for voters demanding money from candidates is to remove the faces of individuals and replace them with the shadow of a political party. Voter bribery may remain but pressure on individuals to distribute material benefits will reduce. Instead the party will be the one to bribe. But since the party is a large whole, the incentives of individuals in it to run around distributing sugar, salt and soap will be reduced. With individual MPs insulated from the wraths of voters, their demand for increased pay and increased years in one term is likely to reduce in tandem with their indebtedness.
The problem is that this solution will reduce the corruption of voters and replace it with that of political party barons. Party leaders in NEC and CEC will be the ones to decide who is Number One and who is Number 350 on the list of people to be MPs. Therefore, those desiring to be MPs will have to bribe for favourable positions. It will also increase the ability of the party machinery to enforce discipline on members and thereby undermine the independence of MPs. This is because if anyone disagrees with their party, they will be kicked off the list of those to become MPs. Finally, under this proportional representation, independents will be eliminated.
Proportional representation is not a perfect solution to the problems in our electoral process. It is just a lesser evil than the current system of directly elected MPs. For example, today, a party can get as many votes in as many constituencies. But for as long as it does not win outright, those votes are meaningless. Under proportional representation, every single vote counts. Therefore, this will put pressure on political parties to try and win as many votes as possible even in areas where they would usually invest no effort whatsoever and thereby undermine incentives for building ethnic-based politics.
In our ethnically diverse societies, proportional representation undermines identity politics. How? For a party to maximise seats in parliament, for example, it will have to select as its potential MPs individuals who can combine a strong home or ethnic base with a strong national appeal to win votes in other regions of the country.
This is because political parties will be seeking to win large margins in local communities and also garner more votes in other regions. This will tend to reduce incentives for politicians seeking to build ethnic bases and instead seek to cultivate a national profile. Therefore, in assessing the costs and benefits of proportional representation against winner-take-all politics, the dice is loaded in favour of the former.
If individual candidates are insulated from the tyranny of voters, it will encourage many enlightened and public-spirited individuals to join politics. It may also encourage crooks to seek to bribe party barons to put them on top of the MP lists. The party will face a choice of either having crooks or attractive individuals on its list of potential MPs. It is possible that in seeking to balance these two interests, political parties will have lists that have both. Rather than the current system where soon we shall have 80 percent of parliament dominated by crooks, this figure may fall to 40 percent and below.
The aim of using proportional representation to fight electoral corruption is only part of it. It may not eliminate corruption but it will reduce it and change the way its residues occur. Centralised graft is often better than decentralised corruption. The real challenge is whether our politicians can rise to the occasion and amend the constitution to introduce proportional representation.