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An MP’s right to choose

By Joseph Bossa

To renounce their party but remain members of the same makes them `party scavengers’

For purposes of this article let us assume that Uganda is a democracy and that the National Resistance Movement Organisation [NRM(O)] is a political party and not a sect.

In a parliamentary democracy, elected officials face different pressures which influence their political decisions. John F. Kennedy listed three major ones. The first pressure is the pressure to be liked.

As a social animal, and of course this applies to most human beings, MPs would love to be loved–by their fellow MPs, their colleagues in the party, by friends and relatives—and would not like to make decisions which will annoy any of those and turn them into an outcast to be shunned.

The second pressure is the desire to be re-elected. An MP faces the pressure not to make decisions which will endanger their re-election because that not only affects their career but the well-being of their family—if the cheque from Parliament is their only income—and that of their supporters as well.

Kennedy listed a third and most significant source of pressure faced by an MP—the pressure of their constituency. The question may arise as to whether to vote for or against what an MP perceives the majority of his/her constituents feel on an issue before Parliament.

In the Ugandan situation an MP rarely has to grapple with such a broad issue. Pressure comes from a different and more basic source–the ordinary voters with their endless requests for school fees, medical bills, job placement for him/herself or child– the State having abandoned providing such services–financial contributions to and attendance at baptisms, graduations and funerals. These have nothing to do with how the MP votes in Parliament.

What Kennedy did not classify as a separate pressure source but regarded as a sub-set of constituency pressure is the political party. Recent events in Uganda would justify treating political pressure as a distinct pressure source.

For the first time in Uganda’s political history sitting MPs have been expelled from their party for defying the party position. NRM(0) expelled four of its MPs from the party after being found guilty as charged for declining to defend themselves before their party’s disciplinary committee.

The charges, although some did not apply to all of them, were:

Appearing on several radio talk shows denouncing Museveni [the NRM(O) chairman] and vowing to fight his re-election in 2016;

Being a member of an advocacy forum on oil whose work opposes the party position on oil issues;

Engaging in formation of cliques/factions and intrigues within the NRM(O) contrary to its rules of conduct;

Wilfully and intentionally disseminating false and malicious allegations that those who were not relatives of President Museveni would remain beggars;

Acting as agents to further the interests of another political party in a manner detrimental to the interests of NRM(O) code of conduct;

Stating that Museveni, the NRM(O) chairman, was a lawyer for the corrupt;

Use of the wrong forum to address issues contrary to the NRM(O) code of conduct;

Denouncing NRM(O) position on heath budget.

The charged MPs faced a set of choices. The first was to appear or not appear before the disciplinary committee of NRM(O). They chose not to appear. Having elected not to appear, they faced another set of choices. They had to choose between resignation from the party and gracefully accepting the decision of the NRM(O) disciplinary committee.

They neither resigned nor accepted the decision of the disciplinary committee. In fact, they even went to court to ask it to block the committee from proceeding to hear the complaints against them. I find that problematic so far as political courage is concerned.

Political courage requires that when you take a political decision based on principle, you accept the consequences of that decision, even if it makes you unpopular and leads to your political defeat. These MPs failed the test. They wanted to act independently of their party and remain members of the party at the same time.

That should not be acceptable. When you disagree fundamentally with your party, you should go that little further distance and “renounce, abdicate, and denounce the name and character and attributes” of that party or “you ought to know and expect this (expulsion) and by no means regret it”, to borrow the words of John Adams, the second president of the United States of America. Short of that you become “a party scavenger”.

If they had resigned not only from the NRM(O) but their parliamentary seats as well, these MPs would have saved us the spectacle we are watching today and judicial time being uselessly expended. (Not that there are no people who are actually relishing it!)

At the end of the day, each politician, especially at the level of a member of Parliament, should at some point look deep within his soul and decide whether the issue at hand is one over which he is prepared to resign from his party or accept expulsion.

Sadly, to the overwhelming number of our members of parliament, a political party or a non-party is just a vehicle to take them to Parliament with the benefits that flow from that.

Joseph Bossa is the Vice President of the Uganda Peoples Congress

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