By Agather Atuhaire
Activists should not have expected much from Parliament
If civil society organisations and the opposition still had any hopes left for electoral reforms, they were this July dashed by the report of Parliament’s Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee on the Constitutional Amendment Bill. The Bill attracted criticism when it was tabled before parliament on April 30 for leaving out the electoral reforms that civil society organisations and opposition political parties had proposed under “The Uganda Citizens Compact on Free and Fair Elections (UCOFFE)”. The opposition MPs on the committee authored a minority report.
But then, some MPs like Fox Odoi (West Budama North) and Oyam North’s Crispus Ayena (opposition UPC) expressed their dissatisfaction with the Bill in quite strong terms.
Fox Odoi, for example, called the Bill “stupid”.
But the Legal Affairs Committee, led by Kajara MP Stephen Tashobya, still refused to include them in the final draft.
Surprisingly this time, even the MPs that had criticised supported the committee report that remained unchanged except for the amendment that requires a person intending to stand as Independent MP to collect 1000 signatures of registered voters.
This, they say, is discriminatory arguing that the independent candidates should be treated the same way as candidates who stand on party tickets.
Tashobya said that there was no time to consider all the proposals that the committee received suggesting that the amendments be handled by the next parliament.
He and other committee members argue that the 9th parliament which is less than five months to the end of its tenure could not to handle something as critical as amending the supreme law of the land.
The last session of the 9th parliament ends in December with MPs already out campaigning to retain their seats and to prepare for party primaries which are around the corner.
Tashobya said that the committee could neither incorporate all the proposals made by the stakeholders nor make comprehensive consultations in all the country’s districts.
The committee carried out meetings in only 16 districts of the 112.
The committee’s suggestion was supported by other MPs when the report was brought up for debate in parliament.
Some like Makindye East MP John Simbwa even suggested that the Bill be withdrawn.
Simbwa reasoned that there is need for time to study and analyse the proposals and that the government should withdraw the Bill or leave it for the next parliament to handle.
Other Legislators like Bufumbira East’s Eddie Kwizera agreed with Simbwa.
The opposition thinks the stampeding of the Bill through parliament is the ruling NRM party’s ploy to ignore the reforms that the public has been clamouring for. The NRM which has an overwhelming majority in the House wants the Bill passed in its current form.
Deputy Attorney General Mwesigwa Rukutana disagreed with the legislators that were calling for the withdrawal of the Bill and said there was no problem proceeding with the debate.
The party’s parliamentary caucus which sat on July 23 agreed to support the main report of the committee and kick out the minority report authored by the opposition MPs on the committee.
The caucus also reportedly resolved that the Independent MPs who want to participate in the party’s primaries must first resign their seats. The resolution was strange considering that the committee agreed with the proposal that MPs who want to cross be allowed to do so as long as it is within the last 12 months of their term.
The minority report deviates so much from the Bill and the main report that parliament at first failed to proceed with the debate.
The Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah deferred the debate twice because the members were not agreeing on whether to debate the majority report or the minority report which included more amendments than those contained in the Bill.
The minority report rejects the proposals in the Bill and advocates for the proposals that were submitted by the many stakeholders that the committee interacted with.
For instance on the changing of the Electoral Commission’s name to the Independent Electoral Commission, the authors of the minority report argued that a mere change of name is not sufficient to establish an Independent Commission desired by the people.
“In our view,” says the report, “the independence can only be seen in the tenets of independence as expressed by the principles and guidelines on the Independence of the Electoral Management Bodies as developed by the SADC countries.”
For that independence to be achieved, the members say the commissioners should be hired through a transparent public appointment process and for the commissioners to have a one year term that is non-renewable to minimise chances of being compromised among others.
Another deadlock is on the proposal to amend Article 83 of the constitution which deals with grounds under which an MP should vacate their seat in parliamentary after ceasing to be a member of the party on whose ticket they were elected.
Minority report ignored
While the main report recommends that the clause be amended to promote discipline and cohesion, the minority report disagrees.
The authors of the minority report who include MPs Paul Mwiru, Abdu Katuntu, Wilfred Niwagaba, Sam Otada and Florence Namayanja cite the sub-judice rule because there is an on-going court case on that particular clause.
The clause was challenged by the so-called “rebel MPs” in Constitutional Court Appeal no.01 0f 2014 of Sekikubo and three others versus the Attorney General.
The case involves Lwemiyaga MP Theodore Sekikubo, Wilfred Niwagaba of Ndorwa East, Barnabas Tinkasimire of Buyaga East and Kampala Central’s Mohammed Nsereko who were expelled from NRM in 2013.
But Rukutana insisted the debate should proceed and even guided that the sub-judice rule does not arise on Article 83 as the members were saying.
The authors of the minority report included more amendments in their report arising from the interactions with the stakeholders they met.
Among them is a proposal to have presidential term limits reinstated and limited to two. This they say is to promote good governance, peace and tranquillity. The legislators also want the number of cabinet ministers cut to 21 to cut down on the cost of public administration.
The minority report also calls for the cutting of constituencies to 100 to cut the number of MPs, and to raise the academic qualifications of MPs from A’level certificate to a bachelor’s degree among others.
If parliament adopts the minority report, it will have catered for most of the concerns of the agitated activists and opposition politicians.
But that, analysts say is very unlikely. Former MP and one time Presidential candidate Aggrey Awori says that is expecting a lot from a parliament that is predominantly NRM with majority of the MPs looking up to President Museveni to endorse and sponsor their re-election.
Even the advocates of electoral reforms appear to have known it is impossible to achieve them through Parliament.
Opposition MPs at a party retreat on May 13 acknowledged that the reforms they had proposed did not stand a chance in an NRM dominated parliament. The MPs had warned their party leaders that the NRM which has more than 250 members in parliament would overpower them and pass the amendments that favour them.
“All of us know as day follows night that there will be no reforms,” Mwiru had said at the retreat cautioning his colleagues not to waste their time expecting a miracle.
“We knew President Museveni would not allow meaningful reforms,” said FDC spokesperson and Kyadondo MP Ibrahim Semujju Nganda.
Sensing defeat in parliament, some opposition politicians like former FDC party president Kiiza Besigye are advocating a mass revolt to demand the reforms. Besigye told his supporters in Mbale on July 23 that he did not expect parliament to support the reforms that would facilitate a level playing field during elections. He said only the citizens can win the battle of electoral reforms.