And so, not surprisingly, some ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party MPs want to postpone the 2016 election.
I must confess that I was a little impressed with their forward planning, a whole two years ahead. We must remember that the constitutional amendment that returned Uganda to multi-partyism, and scrapped presidential term limits as the price for that, happened in 2005 – less than a year to the February 2006 election.
The MPs say this is to allow for electoral and related reforms that the Opposition and others have demanded. The Opposition has called the suggestion madness. Commentators have suggested the NRM is in crisis, as President Yoweri Museveni and his supporters plot the best way to throw Prime Minister and party Secretary-General Amama Mbabazi off the succession train, without causing turmoil in the ranks.
However, there are factors that are at play that we might miss if we focus too narrowly on the personal ambitions of Mr Museveni and his concerns about rivals in the succession.
There are some things that will usually happen when a leader has been in power for over 28 years in Africa or elsewhere, and not held a reasonably fair general election or opened up his party to internal renewal.
This is because the thing with elections is that if they are held and repeatedly stolen (as happens in Uganda), there comes a point when the dynamics for holding another rigged poll are no longer present.
Elections, even fraudulent ones, make sense if they confer some kind of legitimacy. Take Singapore’s ‘founding father’ Lee Kuan Yew, the strongman who modernised the country and made it rich. He ruled for nearly 30 years, and led his People’s Action Party (PAP) to seven electoral victories that rival parties just had no chance of winning – much like the case with Museveni and NRM in Uganda.
Though autocratic, Lee was actually liberal on many issues – e.g. gay rights. However, though his PAP monopolised power and made it impossible for rivals to challenge them in any meaningful way, he drew legitimacy from the end result – he was building a rich modern nation from scratch. Flawed elections seemed like the “right price” to play for prosperity.
In Uganda’s case, flawed elections have only led to more corrupt government, a virtual collapse in public services, and national drift. Unlike countries like Singapore and Malaysia, there is no longer any dividend from the NRM’s and Museveni’s monopoly of power.
It must be acknowledged that in 2011, the election was relatively fair (by Ugandan standards). Ballot boxes were stuffed less, and voters were spared violence. The election was bought, and in these times there is only so much you can quarrel with a candidate who has enough money to buy victory.
But there was no dividend either from that election, because it was squandered quickly in the extreme violence which with the Opposition Walk-to-Work protests that followed were dealt with, and the raft of repressive laws against the media, civil society, and a roll back of civil liberties that came next.
The reason why a relatively free election didn’t give the government a new dose of legitimacy is because the ruling party was decomposed. And it was decomposed because it had not and still hasn’t renewed its leadership.
The fellows who figured that out are the Chinese and, in our region, the Tanzanians.
The Chinese Communist Party has ruled China like forever. There are no competitive elections in China, and certainly no general elections. After 1976, following 33 years of Mao Zedong, China understood that the Communist Party could no longer govern based only on the pedigree of the revolution that brought it to power.
It had, like the PAP of Lee did in Singapore, to modernise China and make it richer. Secondly, that the party could no longer do a Mao. Though it wouldn’t hold free general elections, it would renew its leadership by adopting term limits and pick up more legitimacy from offering periodic change. It is not a freewheeling multiparty democracy, but China has the rituals and processes that bring leadership change.
Where a leadership is in power but is not overseeing Malaysian or Chinese transformation; when it is not holding free elections; when it holds free elections but doesn’t transform; or is neither modernising an economy or a country’s politics, soon the case of holding another rigged ballot falls away.
Looking at these objective factors, the reason why an election shouldn’t be held is that the election itself doesn’t want to be held. Electoral politics in Uganda has lost the will to live. If it is not killed off, it might just commit suicide.
My own views are different. Even with all that, it should still be held. A stolen or useless election is still better than none.
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