How the leading opposition figure hit the nail on the head when talking about money and politics
THE LAST WORD | By Andrew M. Mwenda | Last week, I attended the launch of an autobiography by former cabinet minister, Mathew Rukikaire: 70 Years a Witness. In attendance was Dr. Kizza Besigye, the leading pillar of the opposition in Uganda and four times presidential candidate against President Yoweri Museveni. In his speech, Besigye said UPM polled badly in the 1980 elections because its candidates had no money. Besigye said Rukikaire got the highest number of votes of all UPM candidates in 1980, even polling higher than party president, Museveni, because he (Rukikaire) was rich.
There are exceptions to this rule. However, overall political competition requires money everywhere, even in the richest countries. In poor countries, money gains greater significance because the electorate is ethnically diverse, poor and agrarian. For most poor people, small donations of sugar or meat and soap acquire disproportionate importance. Agrarian societies have values and norms where the poor expect the rich/leaders in society to help them in times of need and they too reciprocate with loyalty.
I made exactly the same point as Besigye in this column last week. That to be an effective politician in poor, ethnically diverse agrarian societies one needs money. Corrupt politicians remain popular because they share their “loot” with their co-ethnics. For instance, the politician helps people with personal needs like school fees, medical bills, funeral and wedding expenses. Our politicians are always under enormous pressure to meet these needs – whether the money is stolen from the state or acquired honestly is irrelevant. This is because our voters do not distinguish between the private resources of a politician and the public finances of the state.
Corruption is, therefore, a subconsciously democratically sanctioned behavior. This explains why corrupt politicians who are generous in their ethnic and/or religious communities win elections. In societies with ethnic tensions, people are even more willing to support one of their own that is accused of criminal activity, seeing such accusations as attempts to sideline them. Ethnic tensions undermine the rule of law as people think the corrupt steals for them.
For example, India has the longest surviving democracy of any poor country in the world today. In this year’s elections, 20% of candidates for parliament were facing criminal charges ranging from murder to rape and extortion. In fact this number has been growing at a rate of 2% in every election. As a result, one third of India’s parliament is under criminal indictment. According to a report by the Carnegie Endowment appropriately titled `When Crime Pays’ a candidate with a criminal record in India is three times more likely to win elections than one who is clean.
Uganda is headed in the same direction as democratic competition deepens. Indeed, over the last 25 years of electoral politics, we have seen honest politicians like Eriya Kategaya, Rukikaire, Ruhakana Rugunda, Kintu Musoke, Bidandi Ssali, Kirunda Kivejinja, Amanya Mushega, Tarsis Kabwegyere, etc. quit electoral competition or be trounced when they have tried. This is because they are not willing to dirt their hands looting the state. The problem is that there are many crooks ready to join.
In rich countries, the private sector is rich enough to fund parties and individuals who represent its interests. There are also many rich individuals and private organisations/foundations to do similar. In poor countries, the private sector is small and most rich individuals are beholden to the state. There are limited opportunities outside the state to sponsor an effective opposition. Therefore, the only reliable source of political money is corruption. Consequently, corruption is not just a means for individual enrichment. That is only its overt manifestation. Fundamentally it is a system of cultivating and maintaining a political following.
This is why we need to understand, even though we may refuse to endorse Museveni’s brand of politics. Our president moves around with cash-stuffed envelopes, which he liberally hands over to people. The young Museveni would have been revolted by this crass bribery and political opportunism. However, he has outlived many of his bush compatriots in large part because of his willingness to step down from his revolutionary utopia to the hard rock of reality. Many Ugandans accept his transformation with the humility of experience.
With this knowledge we can craft a political model to limit the role of money in politics recognising that we cannot eliminate it. The problem, of course, is that most of the people who get elected to public office have little incentive to reform the system. Their success shows they are beneficiaries of the system and hence have a vested interest in its perpetuation. It would literally be like asking them to bite the hand that feeds their political success.
Money politics is not a cause of our poverty but a symptom of it. Neither does it mean we cannot outgrow it. The U.S. had a very corrupt political-machine system that has over decades improved, albeit slowly. The country remains saddled with a lot of political corruption, a lot of it actually legalised – like lobbying. For instance, up until the end of the 19th century when America was poor and agrarian, votes were sold in an open marketplace the way we buy tomatoes and beans – it was perfectly legal. Indeed, early efforts to criminalise vote buying in the USA were resisted by some of the most respected economists who defended it on the principle of willing buyer and willing seller.
Whichever political reform we attempt will not eliminate the centrality of money in politics unless we give up on democracy. It can only limit it with tradeoffs. The American philosopher, Will Durant, said there are only three successful forms of government known to man: aristocracy (rule by birth), theocracy (rule by religion) and democracy (rule by money). One way to limit vote buying is to introduce proportional representation. Here political parties, not individuals, would compete for votes. Parliamentary seats would be allocated according to the share of votes a party got in the elections.
This system would reduce the incentive of individual politicians to ingratiate themselves with voters by giving them money. However, it would shift power from voters at the grassroots to political party bosses at the center. The jockeying for top slots on the list of parliamentarians would centralise corruption since aspiring legislators would now bribe party bosses. This would shift money from a multitude of voters to a small group of party bigwigs. The question is, what is better: the decentralised corruption we have today at the grassroots, or the centralised corruption of the party bosses?