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How elections can undermine democracy

By Andrew M. Mwenda

It is difficult to conduct a debate on anything in Africa whose premise is the reality on the ground. Most debate ‘ whether on public policies or political institutions, on democracy or accountability ‘ uses as its reference point, the experience of the Western world. Take the example of electoral competition. It seems to me that the peculiar way in which it is evolving in Uganda (and many African countries) undermines checks and balances, accountability and public service delivery.

Just like entrepreneurs seek to maximise profit and consumers to maximise utility, politicians seek to maximise power. As rational actors, politicians have to look for the most cost effective way to gain, hold and retain power. In a democratic setting, elections are the vehicle through which power is won and retained. Yet electoral competition creates incentives that lead to characteristic choices.

In the Western world, electoral competition tends to eliminate greedy politicians seeking to serve selfish motives in favour of public spirited candidates seeking to serve the common good. Yet in Uganda (and most of Africa), the opposite is often the case; the thug trounces the nice guy. Why? Politics is a distributional struggle; as American political scientist Harold Laswell said, it deals with ‘who gets what, when and how.’

Groups compete in politics for the benefits that come from power. But this competition takes place within a given context. Most voters in the industrial societies of the West are middleclass, educated and share a common national identity. Because of these factors, electoral competition is animated by issues of service delivery. In Africa, most voters are semi-literate, agrarian and ethnically divided. The issues that animate electoral competition revolve around identity ‘ religious or ethnic.

Prof. Gilbert Bukenya was appointed vice president because he is a Muganda and a Catholic, two major constituencies that President Museveni wants to win. Joe Biden was nominated as vice presidential running mate because of his foreign policy experience which Barack Obama lacked. Museveni would win a block vote of Baganda and Catholics; Obama would have to win each voter individually. When people vote in blocks on the basis of identity, they reduce the incentive for a politician to deliver services.

Secondly, in the absence of strong societal restraints on power, the privileges of political office are many ‘ a luxury state house, two executive jets, a convoy of 20 vehicles, and money to dish out to friends and allies. So incumbents have a high incentive to rig to stay in power.

Now imagine you are Museveni. You have decent guys like Eriya Kategaya, Ruhakana Rugunda, Bidandi Ssali, Apollo Nsibambi and Amanya Mushega in cabinet. They believe in democracy and free and fair elections. But you also have hawkish guys like Kakooza Mutale, Sam Kutesa, Amama Mbabazi, Isaac Musumba and Mwesigwa Rukutana.

You strongly believe you have done a great job reconstructing the country. Yet during elections, you are told that your opponent, Dr Kizza Besigye, is working out ethnic and religious deals with Mengo and Rubaga. The Kategayas are telling you to play fair; the Kutesas are saying be realistic; idealism brought down Brutus. Besigye is even threatening to put you and your allies on trial. So the stakes are high. It is most probable that under such circumstances the hawks will carry the day.

To protect your legacy, you let the hawks stuff ballot boxes, bribe, intimidate, maim and even kill. You emerge from the election dripping with blood. When it is time to reward, whom do you give the most influential ministries: the hawks who were there to rig, beat and kill for you or the enlightened guys who stayed away? It turns out that after an election, the number of hawks in cabinet and in the most influential ministerial jobs increases.

Now you know you cannot trust a Kategaya with your dirty secrets. What you did during the campaigns goes against all the ideals you used to share during your liberation struggle ‘ a free and fair election, a level playing field etc. So he gets few appointments at State House. Now, you realise that elections have made you trust the thugs. Their numbers in your inner circle increases after every election.

Yet you convinced yourself that you will regain your moral standing by doing good things after the election. But the democratic system demands whatever you do must be approved by parliament. So you go to negotiate with MPs. But what MPs do you have?

Remember that voters have settled expectations about politicians; they don’t believe their promises. So they seek to hold them to account during elections ‘ by insisting the candidate buy them beer, sugar, salt, soap, or pays school fees and medical bills for their children.

During the campaign, a public spirited politician (PSP) ran against a thug in a constituency. The thug sold his house in Kampala for Shs 1.2 billion and sunk the money into the campaign. The salary of an MP over a 5-year term is Shs 500m. How does the thug plan to recoup this investment? By lobbying to become minister so he can steal; or to sit on a major committee so that he can get bribes! (Parliamentary committees don’t check the executive, they eat with it).

The PSP, on the other hand, was genuinely committed to public service. He did not sell his house; so he had little money to bribe voters. Voters may have liked his promises, but they would be realised at a future date ‘ so they are uncertain. The thug distributed goodies directly to voters, so his promises were certain. So the thug defeated the PSP. Even your choice of cabinet is limited to the large number of thugs in parliament.

You realise that most of the MPs are greedy and selfish. Because you stole and bribed to win (the MPs were the very guys who did this dirty work for you in their constituencies), you lack the moral high ground to resist their thuggish ways. So they increase their salaries, they demand that their constituencies become districts, they extort bribes from investors and you realise you have nothing you can do to stop them. A purely democratic process has led us to an undemocratic outcome.

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