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More years for our MPs

By Andrew M. Mwenda

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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