About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The dynamics of Uganda’s elections

How electoral competition eliminates public spirited candidates and increases the numbers of self-interested ones

Around election-time,many candidates for office from across the political divide come to me for advice or assistance. We discuss practical political issues: How do I raise money for my campaign? Who are the individuals (there are hardly any organisations) I can approach for financial contributions? Who are the political godfathers (in the church, state or business) I can court? What issues should inform my platform? Which political party ticket should I stand on? In answering these questions, one realises how far removed from theory our actual politics is.

What are the implications of a candidate’s electoral victory coming from courting an ethnic/religious base? What does dependence on political godfathers for electoral success imply on efforts to institutionalise power? What happens when campaign finance for candidates comes almost entirely from their personal savings and atomized individual contributions instead of organisations? How about lack of deeply rooted political loyalties?

In many of my conversations, a candidate will tell me they share the views of FDC. But their constituents are staunchly NRM. Running on FDC ticket is a losing strategy. But they want to go to parliament and make a contribution. What should they do?Besides, if you disagree with the corruption of NRM, politicians in FDC, UPC, DP etc. are not any better. Some are driven by ideals. But many are driven by the same base motivations as NRM. Kizza Besigye has told me his own disappointment at FDC politicians telling him they want to get into power and also eat (or loot) like NRM.

We have gone through nine election cycles since the Constituent Assembly in 1994. So the number of candidates who come seeking my advice increases and their maturity improves. This has greatly improved my knowledge. The more you understand real politics, the more cynical you are likely to become. Yet I have not lost all my youthful idealism. Indeed I have been asking myself: how can I use this accumulated experience to understand and explain our politics and help find ways to improve it?

We African elites live a bifurcated political/intellectual life. In analysing our politics in formal settings, we rely on theories acquired through formal education and largely drawn from the Western experience. But when acting politically, we rely on knowledge/instincts that come to us naturally/intuitively. This is because our upbringing imparted on us values, norms, habits, and expectations that we apply intuitively. A lot has been written about our politics. But it deals with theories imported from abroad but hardly addresses practical politics.

Without understanding the how and why politics works the way it does, you cannot change it. For example, how much do candidates’ manifestoes contribute to one’s electability? What percentage of voters is swayed by promises of public policy or by the status of the candidate in the community, or the ability to dispense favours like alcohol, sugar, rice and meat? The quality of governance will be determined by the contribution of these factors to electoral success.

Contrary to democratic expectation, every election has progressively eliminated candidates who are public spirited and brought electoral victory to the most self-interested. Thus, since 1996, we have witnessed a consistent withdraw from electoral politics of public-spirited individuals–Amanya Mushega, Ruhakana Rugunda, Mathew Rukikaire, Miria Matembe, Bidandi Ssali, Gerald Sendaula, Kisamba Mugerwa, Onapito Ekomoloit, Ben Wacha, etc. A few have remained, but their numbers are shrinking and their positions are growing ever more precarious. To survive electoral competition, many have changed (become practical) and joined the politics of exchanging material favours otherwise called corruption.

Many Ugandan elites think the increasing adulteration of the electoral process and the prostitution of public service is due to President Yoweri Museveni and NRM fiddling with the ballot box.But it has increasingly become clear to me that electoral dynamics themselves (and independent of who is in power) have brought us to this state of affairs. Elections have an in-built incentive for candidates to rig. In those poor countries where rigging is low, I am inclined to believe this is due to the organisational strength of the opposition parties than the conscience of incumbents.

The NRM government exhibited a high degree of public spiritedness in the years 1986-96. Public officials genuinely sought to serve the common good. NRM carried out many reforms which were very unpopular but which served the national interest. Since 1996, the spirit of public service has continued to suffer progressive erosion. Why did an unelected Museveni/NRM govern better compared to today when he/it subjects himself/itself to elections?

Elections may not be the cause of the decline of the public spirit in public service and the accompanying deterioration of the ability of the state to serve the common good. But they have greatly aided this process. For many democratically minded Ugandans this indictment of democracy is too painful to accept. Even I, accepting this conclusion has been a slow and painful process. Democracy, at least theoretically, is a good thing. Accusing it and not an individual like Museveni or an organisation like NRM, of Uganda’s dysfunctions sounds wrong.I know that some people feel angry at how Museveni/NRM has undermined the credibility of elections. They may interpret my argument as an attempt to exonerate the president from culpability. I accept to suffer this misunderstanding with the humility of experience.

But I have been reading about politics in Ghana, Senegal, Zambia, Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania where presidents retire and/or lose to opposition parties. Governance has gotten worse, not better. One can say the time (about 15-20 years) is too short to judge. Granted! India has had almost 70 years of democracy, with regular elections and changes in government but deteriorating standards in governance. India, like these other African countries, is poor. And I think poverty shapes democracy in particular ways – encouraging vote rigging and corruption.

For example, of the 2,000 candidates running for parliament during the 2009 election campaigns in India, 700 were facing criminal charges, and 30 were running for office from jail. When the votes were counted, 162 politicians elected to India’s 545-strong parliament (30%) were facing criminal charges. In India, the more corrupt a politician is, the more popular they will be in their local community. Thieving politicians are seen as heroes by their ethnic kin – just like in Uganda. In India, they call it the Robin Hood Syndrome.Such evidence shows that Museveni/NRM may have presided over electoral corruption and deteriorating governance, but they might not be its cause.


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