Why polls can’t solve our problems

Saturday June 27 2020


By Moses Khisa

It is election campaign time again. The ludicrous idea of a ‘scientific election’ aside, we need to question the role of electoral politics.

As I argued last week, elections are ideally an invaluable mechanism for citizens to express preferences of who to govern and with what plan. Casting the vote to choose leaders, and the entire system of government that we generally call democracy, constitute by far the most important universal value.

As a principle, democratic governance reflected in elections and accountable institutions has a worldwide universal presence. As a practice, however, the variations and divergences could not be starker.

In the case of Uganda, the manner in which elections and the pretensions to democratic government have evolved over the past decades renders the whole system absurd and counterproductive.

Last week, I wrote about the folly of holding a presidential election. It is of little value because we simply do not have the requisite organisational and institutional arrangement, autonomous and competent, to adjudicate the contest for the nation’s highest office in a prudent and efficient way.

This managerial deficiency stems from the fact that the incumbent’s primary goal is to be a president-for-life. Thus, he places himself above the standards of free and open competition. His pursuit of a life-presidency does not stop at compromising the presidential race, it also includes distorting the entire electoral system.


The state machinery deployed to serve the incumbent’s electoral campaign demands inevitably strays into parliamentary and local council electioneering too.

Mr Museveni wants a pliant Parliament, populated by journeymen with no spine to exact legislative oversight and who are clueless about the constitutional duties of the legislature. He has been on record, rather mischievously, advising the public to elect MPs who can spend all their time sleeping in the House only to wake up in time to vote the way he wants.

What is more, with blunt blackmail, Mr Museveni often tells Ugandans to only vote for those MPs who support him and his government lest their constituencies or districts cannot get government resources.

This latter redefinition of an MP’s role has been deeply insidious. It has turned MPs into chief development officers of their constituencies and districts, in effect compromising their job as lawmakers and corroding the duty to check excesses in exercising executive authority.

In effect, we now have Parliamentary and local government aspirants making unrealistic campaign promises like tarmacking roads and building bridges, public works and infrastructure projects that are otherwise squarely the business of the executive or local governments.

Mr Museveni’s exhortation to vote only candidates of his party, a party whose existence beyond feeding off the state is perilous, has meant that many seeking to enter Parliament or win a local government office jump onto the NRM bandwagon and pay their way to Parliament.

Many have no principled attachment to the ruling party and do not associate with its overarching ideological orientation (that is if it has anyway). Their only interest lies in opportunistically wearing the NRM garb as the passport to Parliament.

Every election cycle we have quite a few of these who purport to cross from an Opposition party to the ruling behemoth to win a rural constituency where the state apparatus and misperceptions of peasants put an opposition candidate at gross disadvantage.

Add to this convoluted campaign terrain the routine practice of creating new constituencies in a clear act of electoral gerrymandering to help packing parliament with supine spectators and aid the distribution of access to spoils to local elites.

This distorted electoral landscape is inimical to good government because neither Parliament nor local governments get leaders who perform their functions effectively. It is not about competence but sycophancy. Legislation and oversight are undermined.

The biggest illusion sold to the public is that politicians can engineer development and have the wherewithal to solve endemic problems like poverty. Socioeconomic transformation comes from improvements in productivity and investment in education and health. An MP can buy a van emblazoned as an ambulance but this hardly means a real healthcare service; or will fundraise for a classroom block but not necessarily improve access to meaningful education.

We have an utterly broken political system and electioneering under this system brings cyclical excitement and throwing around hot money that fuels inflation. In substance, it is difficult to see how much value elections add to the life of the average Ugandan and wellbeing of the nation.

Mr Khisa is assistant professor at North Carolina State University (USA).