Thursday March 6 2014

Time to debate direct elections for East African parliament

By Charles Kazooba

Election fever is gaining momentum as Uganda prepares for the 2016 general elections. Both the civil society and opposition have tabled their proposed electoral reforms. Meanwhile, the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) government is still working on its own version of electoral reforms.
But conspicuously absent are proposals to remedy the variances in election of representatives to the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA). A number of aggrieved contestants for the East African Parliament have in the past five years petitioned both local courts and the East African Court of Justice to re-align the rules of elections. The main ground in all these petitions is unfair party representation. Article 50(1) of the East African Community Treaty provides for the procedure on how to elect and who shall represent the national assembly of each partner state in EALA.

On the basis of that provision, representatives are elected based on the strength of parties in parliament, gender and special interest groups. In the last elections alone, four complaints were lodged against the Uganda government and the EAC over EALA elections. Prominent was a case where Mr Abdu Katuntu petitioned the East African Court of Justice, seeking order that all six political parties represented in the Parliament of Uganda. His petition was dismissed on account that the rules of elections satisfied the requirements of the EAC Treaty.

Eventually, it is only NRM, UPC and DP that were represented. And FDC, the main opposition party, was not represented after they boycotted. That petition was similar to the one filed by Anthony Calist Komu, a member of the Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo party, who unsuccessfully contested for EALA. Komu sued the Tanzanian government claiming his party being an official opposition party in Parliament, should have been given a chance to be elected to maintain an alternative view.

In Kenya, two leading parties, ODM and PNU, also ignored the smaller parties and fronted 117 candidates for the nine EALA slots. This rubbed the other parties the wrong way.
It is only Rwanda out of the five partner states that attempted to fulfill the intentions of Article 50 of the treaty by electing legislators from different political groupings that included the National Women Council, the National Federation for the Disabled and the National Youth Council. Five women and four men were elected. Rwanda agreed that all parties represented in Parliament get a seat each in EALA.

Therefore, it is true that the EAC Treaty has disenfranchised most contestants. The electoral procedures of the EALA representatives conducted by the national assemblies as prescribed in the treaty, puts into question the legitimacy of the representatives and by extension the East African Parliament.
These indirect elections practiced by EALA undermine the principles of popular participation and individual sovereignty. More specifically, it is the electorates who confer sovereign rights on elected representatives who, in turn, make laws on behalf of the electorates.

For the EAC to be stronger, legislators at the EALA must be elected by the people in their respective countries. This will allow the people to own the regional integration process as opposed to the current situation where political parties nominate the EALA MPs.

EALA ought to play its rightful role of shaping and enlarging the democratic space in the region through its legislative, deliberative and representative functions. In the European Union where we have copied most of our systems, lawmakers are elected under the universal adult suffrage. And because of these direct elections the EU has become a very vibrant bloc.

Mr Kazooba is a journalist specialising in African integration