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NRM elections and Uganda’s agony

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The continuing primary elections for the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) provides an important insight into the political health of our country. For more than two weeks now, we have been witnesses to a political party election that is both a sham and a farce. The NRM launched an armed struggle in 1981 because of election theft. Since it came to power, it has organised regular elections where every successive election has been more poorly organised than the previous one; every time violence, organisational confusion, bribery and vote rigging increase.

We have always thought that the violence and rigging were aimed at helping NRM to unfairly eliminate its opponents. However, now that the NRM’s own internal election has exhibited similar (or even worse) levels of violence and rigging, it seems obvious that we have a bigger problem on our hands. There has always been violence and intimidation inside NRM primaries ‘ sometimes forcing the government to deploy the army and police to contain the situation. But it has never been as widespread across the entire country as the current primaries.

Yet it is not the violence and intimidation per se that I think is the problem. Rather it is the fact that these ills are underlined by individual rivalries rather than conflicts over ideas and programs. Normally, individual rivalries among candidates are only a reflection of the ideologies and policy preferences of social groups they represent. But in the NRM contest, it seems that individuals seek power for the individual’s sake. The question then is: How are ordinary people motivated and mobilised to participate in such a highly personalised struggle for power?

It is here that I feel the debate on democracy, accountability and electoral competition in Uganda is disarticulated from the reality of our politics. I come from a Rational Choice approach to politics and therefore assume that those who seek elective office are power maximising political entrepreneurs. Their primary objective in politics is to advance their personal ambition. But I admit that there are other nobler motivations for politicians like ideology and a genuine desire to serve the public good. But these are often held by a minority of politicians.

Therefore, overall politicians are not different from a private company whose primary objective in business is to maximise profit. However, for a private company to make profit, it must produce a good or service of the highest quality at the lowest price relative to its competitors. Therefore, what is actually a pursuit of personal greed produces a socially beneficial outcome largely due to competition.

The same applies to politics. Even when driven by personal motives, politicians know they can only secure a following if they stand in defence or promotion of some socially beneficial cause. By aggregating the interests and grievances of key social groups and articulating them, they rally supporters. Competition is therefore the mechanism through which personal political ambition is made to serve a public good.

However, every theory must be tested against reality. For example, how does political competition actually work in Uganda to promote or undermine the public good? In our context, politicians compete for political office amidst an electorate that is largely poor, less educated and unorganised. Most critically, voters have an experience where politicians promise to deliver public goods and services which they do incompetently ‘ if at all. Once elected, politicians accumulate personal wealth.

This experience has given Ugandan voters settled expectation about politics. Voters pay lip service to public policy promises during campaigns because they are always empty. But they know that personal economic returns to the politician from public office are higher than the public policy benefits for them. So they also seek to maximise personal returns from the campaigns by insisting that the candidate buys for them material goods like sugar, soap, alcohol and pay fees and funeral expenses for them. These are realised immediately during the campaign process; so they are a sure deal.

So both candidates and voters are incentivised to be crudely opportunistic. This turns electoral competition from public policy to bribery and people from being citizens into clients. But it also has powerful implications on the nature of the government that gets elected. Rather than seek to promote the public good, the resultant government would seek to prioritise the privileges of elites above public services to ordinary people. This partly explains the poor state of public goods and services in Uganda.

These distortions reproduce themselves. Thus, our elections have tended to progressively eliminate public spirited individuals in favour of crooks; the few good people who have survived in politics have had to adapt. We have thus witnessed the progressive erosion of public spiritedness from the NRM and the wider body politic. People like Eriya Kategaya, Gerald Sendaula, Ruhakana Rugunda, Bert Katurebe etc. have retreated from elective politics and crooks have taken their place.

A democratic process has thus led us to an undemocratic outcome hence the violence, rigging and confusion that marred NRM primaries. Because of the structure of our economy, political power is still the major source of economic wealth. Therefore, the stakes in our politics are very high. With the public corrupted through bribery, the personal feuds have taken centre stage with devastating consequences.

I would have argued that all this is a short term negative side effect of a young democracy. With sustained economic growth, a boom in education and an expanding size of the middle class, most voters will increasingly organise and demand public policy benefits above personal bribes. However, with the entry of oil into our politics, I am restrained from jumping to conclusions.

It is possible that these failures can lead to a coup or popular insurrection and to the death of our democratic experiment as has happened to the Philippines, Argentina, Chile, etc before. Possibly we need more debate on the conditions that underpin a democratic polity. For above the structural conditions such as a sizeable middle class, a large private sector and an education electorate, the most primary foundation of a democracy is the existence of a strong state that enjoys a degree of autonomy from personal and individualistic pressures that we see in Uganda.

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