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Why free and fair elections are key

By Joseph Bossa

Should all ills be laid at the feet of that one person simply for being president for the last 30 years?

Fair-minded observers of, and participants in, Uganda politics agree on one thing: Uganda faces a crisis in all spheres—in its governance, infrastructure, employment, service delivery, sense of oneness as a nation, inequality, corruption and impunity to name but a few– and change must be made as a matter of urgency. What they do not agree on is what needs to be done to put the country back on course.

On politics, four schools of thought contend as to how to put things right. These are:

  • Restoration of presidential term limits
  • Reduction of presidential powers
  • Fielding single candidates from among the opposition
  • Establishment of genuine free and fair elections
  • Each school will be examined separately.
  • Restoration of Term Limits

It is argued that the problem of Uganda is one person, in particular the president, remaining in that position for too long. All the ills afflicting Uganda are laid at the feet of that one person who has been president for the last 30 years. The implication is that if there were term limits, the damage done by this leader would have been confined to the maximum period the law allowed him to rule.

That is essentially a negative point of view. It takes it as a given that any elected president will invariably do more harm than good and the only factor to mitigate that harm is the limiting of the period he should be given to do that harm. But that should not be so. Let’s look at the positive side. A president can do more good than harm. The country should not lose the service of such a president by setting term limits. We should not throw out the baby with the bath water.

The term limit argument, in the case of Uganda, often takes a defeatist turn. Some people assert that this seating president cannot be removed through an election; that the mere presence of his name on the ballot paper is enough to ensure his winning. I respectfully disagree.

What is essential is putting in place a system that ensures the removal from office of any elected person whose service does not measure to the expectations of the voters. That vacation from office should not depend on term limits but on the quality of his service. But even if that official were voted out for no particular or better reason other than the electors being tired of him and wanting to try out a new person, so be it. That is why free and fair elections are important.

Reduction of Presidential Powers

The leading proponent of the view that Uganda’s problem is the excessive powers of the president is Ms. Beti Kamya, the head of Uganda Federal Alliance political party. She argues that the president with power to appoint 300 heads of Ugandan institutions is bound to abuse that power and so would any person given such powers. Her proposed solution is the removal the presidential power to appoint those heads of institutions, in order to improve governance in this country.

The ancient Greeks asked: who will police the police? Similarly, we can ask: who will appoint the appointer? Remember, the buck stops with the president. This means that the president bears responsibility for all public appointments. He should exercise that power on behalf of the people of Uganda who appoint him and should have power to remove him through an election. Ultimately, therefore, in a democracy the real assurance against the abuse of power lies in the elected officials being accountable to the voters who determine not only their gaining power but also their stay in those positions. If a president abuses that power, the people can punish him by not returning him to office.  He can even be impeached before his term expires. The greatest penalty that can be imposed on a politician is denying him the vote. Being returned to office is also the politician’s greatest incentive for attending to the needs of the voters. That is why free and fair elections are important.

The Opposition Fielding Sole Candidates

There is a wide-spread view that if the Opposition presented sole candidates at all levels; they would prevail over the ruling party. The argument goes that with multiple Opposition candidates, those who would be inclined to vote for the Opposition are confused and their votes are divided. This argument is valid if, as a matter of practice, the combined votes of the Opposition usually exceed those of the ruling party candidates. This is debatable or at least not conclusively proven. No matter. In flawed elections a single candidate can as easily be cheated as multiple candidates. That is why free and fair elections are important.

Genuine Free and Fair Elections

The call for free and fair elections is a demand for a level playing field as means to ensure the accountability of elected officials to the electorate. It is only that official who knows that his being in office is owed to the voters freely expressing their choice will feel a moral and political obligation to serve them. That is why Free and Fair Elections are the key to solving the problem of Uganda.

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Joseph Bossa is the UPC Vice- President

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