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Ending electoral corruption

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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.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
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written by Rajab Kakyama, April 07, 2014
"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. In this regard, our electoral rules should be based on proportional representation as happens in South Africa, Rwanda and many other European Countries." I am inclined to agree partially and not entirely to this argument because , it escapes the crucial question of, "Who is the immediate benefactor at the end of an electoral exercise?" This question is more at the back of every aspiring candidate's mind than it is to a voter's. The aspiring candidate will then embark on carrying out possible ways for a favourable outcome.
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written by Rajab Kakyama, April 07, 2014
This will not only include convincing the voter to go for polls but it will also be about "biasing" the mind of the voter to vote in a particular way. "Biasing" could be of a "persuasive" nature or of "subtle coercion." The persuasive means of biasing a voter are normally by command of the language, however, the coercive means may take the form of monetary bribes or security threats. Majority of the Ugandan voters are treated to the latter form. In "Das Capital", Karl Max was to consider capitalism as a two horse race system - "the bourgeois and the proletariat." The bourgeois who constitute a minority are the leaders and control the wealth.
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written by Rajab Kakyama, April 07, 2014
The proletariat who are the majority, constitute the working class and are poor. In a capitalistic society the workers have to work their way up the social ladder through labour. During electioneering, a voter has to forego gardening, attending to the shop, such an inconvenience (polls day) in a capitalistic society must attract a price. If the aspiring candidate is short on the message, it becomes a price that he/she is willing to pay, a price that will bias the voter to vote in a candidate's favour. So, who commercializes the "democratization process?" Is it the leader who controls the wealth or the voter who is a mere worker? And does "Proportional representation" solve the problem?
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written by Rajab Kakyama, April 07, 2014
It is my humble view that proportional representation may simply divert the problem and bring in more layers of corruption into the equation. Why? Proportional representation suggests that the participating political parties should command a National appeal. In the Ugandan context, political parties are formed on the basis of tribal grounds, religious affiliation and historical incidences of the founding members. It, therefore, becomes a major factor when a party is to appeal to a religion, a region or tribe it does not have representation. This will mean that such a party is to "co-opt" membership. The co-optation of membership brings in an element of "compromise." So, by membership, the party becomes internally compromised.
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written by Rajab Kakyama, April 07, 2014
This will be one source of corruption. The other problem is that our political parties tend to reflect the weaknesses and excesses of their founding leaders. In many instances the leader becomes the party. This is because of the overbearing nature of a leader and the lack of institutional mechanisms within the various political parties. So, even if it were the political parties to directly engage the voters, the process would take a personal approach. It will be a facsimile as though Museveni, Muntu or Olara, were to individually meet with the voters. If such individuals inhabited corrupt tendencies so will their respective parties exhibit such tendencies.
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written by Rajab Kakyama, April 07, 2014
What is the way forward? There are two major bases for electoral choices- short- term and long- term factors. Short term factors are the things concerning a particular election. It could be the general state of the economy, the appeal (or lack of it) of a candidate or an international crisis. Long term factors may include the "tie party identification"- where individual voters identify themselves with particular political parties. Mr. Mwenda's proposal of proportional representation is ideal under such circumstances. It has worked for the Republicans and Democrats in the United States and Labour and Lukid in Israel, among other states.
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written by Rajab Kakyama, April 07, 2014
However, the Ugandan political environment is so fragile that political parties change by the day, making tie party identification very difficult. What appeals to the Ugandan voter, therefore, are the short- term factors. If an average Ugandan earns $500 a year, then the social economic standing of a voter becomes of great concern. More than 60% of the Ugandan population are youths and out of this, more than 80% are unemployed. In order to curb this national tragedy there needs to be an urgent short- term government policy of finding employment for the youths.
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written by Rajab Kakyama, April 07, 2014
If a great number of the youths gets employed, then the total sum of the National Income (NY) will increase. It will then become very difficult for our leaders to "bias" our minds with, a bar of soap, a kilo of sugar and a sachet of salt. But more importantly, the employment of the majority (who are the youths in this case) would have reversed the old capitalistic setting- where the minority hold the destiny of the majority. To me, this is the difference between poor nations and Developed Democracies. What do you think?
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written by Maceni, April 07, 2014
I agree with Mwenda to the extent that he recognizes that the problem is a structural one not a behavioral one and offers a structural solution. Voter persuasion or coercion etc. through corrupt means is behavioral manifestation of what is fundamentally a structural problem. Youth unemployment is the outcome a structurally flawed education and economic system . During elections we simply experience the interplay of all our systemic problems - Each feeding over the other. People will align themselves to behavior that the system rewards.
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written by Denis Musinguzi, April 08, 2014
I wish to strongly associate with every bit of Rajab's assessment. I therefore contend likewise that credible solution resides in dealing directly with problems affecting voters such as poverty, unemployment, corruption, unresponsive policy environment, etc rather than hide behind electoral competition which is clearly a consequence and not cause of our governance problem.
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written by Winnie, April 08, 2014
Uganda needs to move in the following direction
1. Ministries should be cut to 12 some ministries can be merged (since there were 12 disciples there was a reason why Jesus had 12 disciples only.
2. Kenya is democratically younger than Uganda but look how far they have reached they embrace investors and they take life seriously they now have a large middle class even Lupita won a Grammy you should have seen the likes of Angelina jole,Oprah ,Leonard DiCaprio hugging her.
3. How can Govt leave the likes of Ssemujju to embarrass CEO's of multinational companies i was happy when the investors left Ug and went to Kenya for oil exploration we really missed that golden chance.coz of our fake democracy.
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written by Marvin ya Kuku, April 09, 2014
Structure and Behaviour are irrelevant. The former, even if changed will not be of any use simply because there is no free and fair election. What difference does it make if we say lets play football with our hands but keep the same biased ref? Behavioural is even less relevant. Even in Sweden someone will vote for his own interests whether socialist, anti immigration etc. We need to start from scratch. All the structures we have can work if the leadership was less corrupt and dictatorial. Aside from a few dubious laws, most African countries have very good constitutions. The structure is already there but the implementation is lacking
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written by Ocheto, April 09, 2014
Whatever happened to enforcing the laws in the books against corruption? If an aspiring candidate runs afoul of the legal strictures of the electoral laws they should held to account. Mwenda and company are just complicating a rather straightforward problem in order to bury it with needless sophistication (which is usually a euphemism for corruption). Incidentally I haven't been around to follow the debates but the notion that there are broke MPs in Uganda (mention elsewhere) is rather suspects. Usually they declare or cry bankruptcy to hide their ill-gotten booty and wealth -- and moreover debt too sells.
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written by Semakula David, April 24, 2014
Rajab, thank you for your educated enlightenment. I really liked your approach to Mwenda's suggestion. I have a third opinion though; response to your..."what do you think?". I assert (not think) that democracy is rule of the mob and the mob is rarely wise. So, we should change (if only for a trial period) to an ancient Roman system whereby only elders (say over 55) + property owners+educated achievers+group representatives(read cooperatives,associations etc)+resident foreigners representatives (vetted by government)+religious leaders should be composed into an electoral college no exceeding 600 persons. Then the said college to be facilitated for consultation as need will arise. Their word and vote should be IRREVOCABLE.
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written by Semakula David, April 24, 2014
The said electoral college to decide through consultation with citizens and residents who should be the appropriate candidate. Then where necessary to summon and question the candidate so as to verify their suitability. Choice of mob is mobster and will indeed appease the mob that elected them.... to look the other way when mob smokes bhang,rapes or misbehaves anyhowly etc.....

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