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More years for our MPs

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Why parliament will either increase its term of office from five to seven years or raise its wages threefold

Some Members of Parliament have proposed that their term be extended from five to seven years. This proposal is going to gain momentum. If it is not adopted by the current parliament, the next one will. It is almost inevitable that MPs increase the number of years of an elected term, or double or even triple their wages. This is because the consolidation of electoral competition has gone hand in glove with the commercialisation of politics.

Having been to India, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Malawi, Zambia and Kenya and witnessed first hand the similarities in the way democratic politics is organised along similar lines, I am inclined to present this problem as a structural one. Electoral competition in poor countries tends to increase corruption and undermine the ability of parliament to exercise oversight on the executive.

Institutions create incentives for actors inside them. In Uganda’s case, electoral competition takes place in the context of a largely poor electorate. The profile of the median voter in Uganda is that he/she lives in a corrugated iron-roofed house, with a rammed earth floor, relies on a kerosene candle for light, firewood for energy, has two poor quality meals a day, buys clothes twice or thrice a year, eats meat once in a month, earns $500 in a year, has a wife and seven children and his best asset is a bicycle.

This profile has powerful implications on electoral competition. The voter tends to be a realist looking for immediate material gains from politicians rather than an idealist seeking reform of governance. He/she would tend to be attracted more to politicians in a position to meet his/her immediate needs for security, food and jobs (which can easily be secured by working through rather than against government) than those who promise to end corruption and defend human rights.

In a contest between a crook who has sold his house in Kololo to run for MP and a patriot committed to improving the quality of governance, the crook has an advantage. The crook can make similar promises as the patriot to fight public sector corruption, to build roads, schools and hospitals and to improve the quality and access to education, healthcare and clean water. Because these promises are realised at a future date, anyone can make them even if they intend to do little or nothing. The crook can supplement such public policy promises by distributing salt, sugar, alcohol, meat and soap to voters.

Voters are not stupid. First, they have experience of many public policy promises being made during campaigns and few being fulfilled. So they have an inbuilt tendency to be skeptical. Secondly, voters know that the private returns to individual MPs are higher than the public policy benefits voters get. Third, they suspect that once elected, the MP is less likely to return and share his/her benefits with them. So it is better to insist that the candidate pays for his promises now than later, hence bribery. Corruption of the electoral process is generated more by demand from voters than by supply from politicians.

The situation is different in a developed country like Norway. The median voter earns $50,000 per year, lives in a good apartment with electricity and running water and meets all their basic needs even when they are unemployed. Such a voter may accept bribes from candidates but they would be very high; may be up to $300,000 per voter. If you multiply this on 30,000 voters, it may be too expensive for most candidates. Therefore, in such circumstances, it is cheaper to bribe voters with public policy promises on healthcare and education than with private gifts.

The reverse is true in poor countries. Because of very low incomes, voters in poor countries may trade their vote for as little as a kilogram of rice or meat. So democracy in rich nations would promote public policy and institutionalisation of the state while doing the actual opposite in poor countries. But the consequence of this structure of incentives in poor countries is that more often than not, the crooks defeat the public-spirited individuals.

This is the experience we have seen in Uganda: every election has seen the defeat of the more public-spirited candidates and the victory of crooks who have no qualms about bribing voters. With time, many public-spirited politicians have either opted out of electoral competition or become realistic and thereby began bribing voters as well. Thus, people like Ruhakana Rugunda, Gerald Sendaula, Mayanja Nkangi, etc progressively quit electoral politics. A democratic process has produced undemocratic outcomes.

But if a crooked politician spends over Shs 500 million to be elected to parliament, they must find a way to re-coup their investment. They must either lobby to be appointed to cabinet in the hope that they can have greater access to public resources. Or they can lobby to sit on influential committees of parliament so that they can leverage it to force ministers and civil servants to bribe them. Others will fight for increasing their allowances and wages, or now argue for extension of their term from five to seven years, so that they can recoup their investment.

As I write this article now, 60% of all MPs in Uganda earn less than 40% of their salaries and allowances. They borrowed heavily to fund elections and now have to pay back the loans. Yet to keep their seats, MPs have to return to their constituents every weekend. Here, they are made to attend to personal problems of their constituents like paying medical bills and school fees of their constituents, contributing generously to weddings, funerals and fund-raising initiatives for churches, clinics, schools and bridges in their communities.

Consequently, most MPs are heavily indebted to banks and loan sharks and their pay is deducted at source. Some earn almost nothing every month. This has left many MPs too vulnerable economically to exercise oversight over the executive. Instead they do better colluding with the President to pay their debts in exchange for voting whatever he wants than seek to hold him to account. Others depend on bribes from thieving civil servants to survive.

It is not Museveni’s cunning that has allowed him to control parliament. Rather, the incentives created by electoral competition in our circumstances have undermined the independence of parliament. Next week, I will propose a solution to this conundrum.

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Comments (13)Add Comment
written by Mutungisa Wenceslaus, March 31, 2014
It is indeed true. Just waiting for proposed solution to see if it fits mine
written by Denis Musinguzi, March 31, 2014
Andrew, both the demand by the poor voter for immediate rewards and the crook's willingness to stake their wealth are informed less by electoral competetion per se, but more by governance failure. Voters' demand for immediate rewarsd is clearly a cumulative effect of failure to deliver electoral promises in form of goods and services by those seeking for election. Without preempting your next week's piece, the solution lies in sanitizing politics and governance, and redirecting government's ability to deliver on its mandate. Sort of this, the rest will be temporary solutions that leave the elephant largely untouched.
written by derek, March 31, 2014
wonder if imposing restrictions on ratio of debt to income of any official elected or public office and failing that official losses his office automatically.

or blocking any electoral candidate ,who liquidates maybe more than 1/2 of his assets/assets he controls within 5years of an election year,from participating in an election. inaddition to strictly enforcing law against bribing of voters cud help reduce politicalbusiness men and women in public office.
or making political office voluntary work with govt housing and govt fueled cars as only compensation for their sacrifice.
written by Rajab Kakyama, April 01, 2014
Here is my two cents. With the first cent, I will try to elicit the "capitalistic tendencies" of the democratization process. And with the other cent, I will explain and expound more with what Mwenda refers to as the "public -spirited candidates and the victory crooks."
Capitalism which is synonymous with "entrepreneurial activity" by sociologists, is the most conspicuous feature of our time. After a long struggle, business enterprise has come to dominate not only the economy but also the political programs of government as well. It has pervaded every area of life; it has created and controls the media.
written by Rajab Kakyama, April 01, 2014
It provides a major part of the money to fund the campaigns of political candidates. It even professes to find sanction in the doctrines of sainthood. But villainous as it may be in some of its grosser manifestations, it is too deeply entwined with our collective psyche to serve as a satisfactory whipping boy. And "Political corruption" is not a thing of today at least not unique to the rest of the world. Looking at the 1824 American election, no man for decades had dominated the politics of the Union as had Andrew Jackson. But also on the horizons was the burning bright star of one Quincy Adams who was son to John Adams, the second President of the United States.
written by Rajab Kakyama, April 01, 2014
In terms of what could have been assumed to be proper qualifications for the president of the united States, Jackson stood at the bottom of the class. He was a slaveholder and a man of profound conservative disposition in many ways. His wild card was that he had no known principles which meant that people were free to ascribe to him any principles they wished. In his principal rival was a brilliant writer, a marvelously skillful diplomat- John Quincy Adams.
written by Rajab Kakyama, April 01, 2014
When the votes were opened and counted, it was pretty evident that no candidate had majority electoral votes. Under the 12th Amendment, it provided that if no candidate had a majority of all votes cast, the house of Representatives should choose the president from among three candidates having the largest number of votes. Jackson 99, Adams 84, Crawford 41 and Clay 37. But the ball was for Clay to play; the one who came in fourth. The reason was that Clay had majority support in the House and that he had special misgivings about Jackson. The Jacksonians were later to allege that Adam was being "bought out."
written by Rajab Kakyama, April 01, 2014
Although the claim could not obtain in court, nonetheless the Jacksonians raised the cry of "corrupt bargain", signalling that Adam had bought Clay's votes by offering him the office of secretary of state in his administration. The ills of Capitalism had eaten into the core fabric of politics and politics was to be furnished with "interest." The "winner takes all" mentality was to subdue the "common good" mentality. Commercialization of politics had found its way through a "democratization" process. Conventionally, one cannot have his cake and eat it, however, with capitalism both are real possibilities.
written by Rajab Kakyama, April 01, 2014
Our constitution states that power is with the people, but it seems when the people elect their leaders, the people do not only surrender their power to the leader but they also lose the choice of politics.
What Mwenda refers to as "public-spirited candidates" is widely recognized as "Secular-Democratic Consciousness." It is rooted in the natural goodness and imminent perfectibility of man. It believed in the power of human reason and its handmaid, to reconstruct the world on progressive principles.
written by Rajab Kakyama, April 01, 2014
The "victory crooks" are part of the same coin as John Quincy Adams was soon to discover. In a letter written in 1822, Adams had spoken feelingly of those politicians "who would barter a Presidency for a department or an embassy, or stoop to spread the table of greatness for the promise of the crumbs which may fall from it." He had won only by the kind of behind-the-scenes dealing and manoeuvering that he loathed. The Corruption Bargain.
written by Winnie, April 02, 2014
Andreeeeeeeeeeeeew may you be blessed we always watch newsnight like we were bewitched. when citizens stop fearing the Govt and they always challange it then that country is democratic true of uganda..on the UMEME contact being cancelled,by the time govt signed this agreement we had no choice we were literally begging for investors we even had to pay for their air tickets it was that bad.on lukwago that guy is finished he will still be impeached coz the numbers are surely there even the cock that was given to him acelerated his problems.
written by Semakula David, April 03, 2014
Winnie you are a fool. No wonder Adam Kifaliso left this column for the likes of you and your likes. As for Lukwago, wait a bit. You people have not seen anything yet.
written by Winnie, April 04, 2014
Semakula what are we yet to see when its M7 who saved Uganda from all sorts of disaster he is the one and only one who single handily introduced the rule of law.Adam passed on without even eating Hawaiian Pizza. Semakula i am a fool in love when it comes to Andrew. you can call me anything i know African Men begin by abusing their women then they later on impregnate them its what we call tough love.

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