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Re-examining the impact of elections

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why elections in India select criminals for politicians but produce dedicated public servants in Norway and Sweden

I have argued before that the very specific way democracy has evolved in Uganda is injurious to the common good. I use the word “very specific” because I am aware that other countries have had a different experience. Yet Uganda is not unique. Last week, I concluded this column showing how India faces a similar crisis as Uganda. Indeed, many democracies in Africa may have faired better than autocracies. But they too have evolved a pattern of politics where the public sector hardly embodies a collective vision. Instead it reinforces a pattern of politics that confers privileges on a few at the expense of the many.

I have grown to doubt the view that democracy per se automatically produces improved governance. The commitment by incumbents in power to be honest, serve the common good,and be accountable for their actions may have little to do with elections and any regime of checks and balances.For example, the commitment of Kabaka Ronald Mutebi and his indefatigable Katikiiro, Peter Mayiga, to serve the good of Buganda is not based on them being elected. Rather, they have been socialised into Kiganda traditions that impose on them a sense of honour to serve their people well. This is the same experience I find in the gulf states of Dubai, Qatar and Oman. There, quasi-traditional monarchs serve their citizens diligently even without democracy.

I am increasingly of the view that being accountable and committed to one’s citizens and subjects is not a result of being elected. It has a lot to do with values, norms, traditions (i.e. shared cultural understanding) of leaders and the conscience of elites, etc. In those countries where checks and balances work, they are consequences of the search for, not the cause for the existence of, accountability.


Let me illustrate: the Nordic countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark are considered the best world examples in the state’s ability to serve the citizen diligently. Do the leaders of these countries serve the common good because they are elected? Assume there were no elections and all the checks and balances in these countries. Would politicians and civil servants there behave like the ones in Mobutu’s Zaire and plunder the treasure? Is electoral competition and parliamentary debate all that it takes for incumbents in these Nordic countries to serve the common good? It is possible that even if parliament was abolished and elections suspended, decline in the quality of government in these countries would be small.

My father was a civil servant whose upbringing involved the acquisition of Toro Kingdom and British colonial government values, norms, ethics and traditions of leadership and public service. He was honest and dedicated to public service even though he never sought elected office. This ethic was exhibited by Ugandan public officials of my father’s  generation. People like FDR Gureme, John Bikangaga, Justine Byagageire, Semei Nyanzi, etc. served this country with unparalleled integrity and upheld public sector ethics. None of them was an elected official. They behaved that way because of the values they had acquired during their growth rather than because of checks and balances.

To avoid being misunderstood, let me state clearly that I support checks and balances in government. I also support (at least theoretically) the establishment of oversight institutions like the IGG, PPDA, parliamentary oversight committees, Auditor General, DPP, independent courts, civil society activism and free media. All these institutions are necessary for the establishment of transparent and accountable government. But they are neither sufficient nor primary to accountability. I would say they are derivative.

Let me explain: elites may be dedicated to the establishment of transparent and accountable government. They look for ways and means to achieve this goal. Genuine pursuit of accountability and transparency will lead them to establish these institutions. But if ruling elites have no interest in accountability, as is largely (not entirely) the case in Uganda today, the establishment of these institutions per se will not improve accountability. I want to argue that on the contrary, these institutions would be captured by thieves and used for ends at odds with the intended purpose.

I have observed President Paul Kagame closely and seen his dedication to developing Rwanda, reconciling its people and serving its citizens. I do not think he does this because he is looking for votes. On the contrary, he gets votes because he serves his country well. Even without elections, Kagame would be the same Kagame – honest and dedicated to Project Rwanda.

Even President Yoweri Museveni is a very public spirited person. It is the pressure of electoral competition that has driven him to compromises and concessions that harm the public good.This is the reason the corrosion of government in Uganda begins in 1996 when he began running for office. Sometimes (not always), elections can corrupt a country’s body politics – this is the case of Uganda and India. The solution is not to abandon democracy and choose tyranny. Rather it is to restructure our democratic institutions and create incentives for elected officials to pursue the common good.

How? Talking to many candidates for public office in Uganda has taught me that electoral dynamics in our country tend to eliminate public-spirited individuals in favour of crooks. This is partly because of the poverty of our citizens, the norms and values of our agrarian society, and the paucity of formally organised demand-groups to provide institutional support to candidates. This is a hard problem to fix as it takes generations to change such structures. But we can adopt proportional representation so that the electorate chooses political parties not individuals during elections.

Why? When individuals go for elections in our poor agrarian settings, the pressure on them to meet the immediate needs of voters is very high. These needs are basic – soap, sugar, salt, funeral expenses, medical bills, school fees etc. Such demands are inevitable in a poor agrarian society. Ordinary people see the act of giving such handouts as the right thing leaders should do. Politicians who respond to such expectations are not always crooks. It is just that they understand and appreciate the social context.

The problem is that crooks that want to use politics to make money take advantage of the situation and get elected. Once in office, they use the prerogatives of power to recoup their investment and make a handsome return. Proportional representation has potential to reduce this incentive to bribe voters because a party is faceless.

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