The electoral reforms that were never implemented

Wednesday June 3 2020

People line up to vote at then Kampala Taxi

People line up to vote at then Kampala Taxi Park, currently known as the Old Taxi Park, during the 1980s. PHOTO FILE. 


The 1971 coup not only toppled president Milton Obote, but also derailed plans for the General Election planned for that year. The Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) government had earlier, in 1970, made some electoral reforms from the last time the country had elections in 1962. One of them was the use of a 1+3 system, which Prof Ali Mazrui called ‘political polygamy’.
According to Document Number 05, a government policy, Obote wanted a Parliament with a national, not just constituency representation.
Members of Parliament were to campaign and be elected in four different districts (constituencies).

Under the new law, a candidate was to have a national appeal, meaning they had to campaign and be elected in different parts of the country.
Under these reforms, an MP would be able to debate for the country, not just for the constituency where he came from, hence the need for one to have been elected from different parts of the country.

The 1+3 electoral law
The proposed electoral law known as 1+3 required a parliamentary candidate to be elected in four different constituencies.
Each candidate had a primary constituency and three others.
The 1+3 system required a candidate whose primary constituency was from the central to have one secondary constituency from each of the other regions of the country.
For instance, a candidate whose primary constituency is in central region was to have a one secondary constituency in the western, eastern and northern regions. Prof Ali Mazrui called it “the most innovative political idea from Africa.”
National Assembly members elected under this law were to be considerate to issues affecting not only their primary constituencies.
Presently, it is not uncommon for an MP to take to the floor of Parliament and debate according to his constituency’s interest, not the country at large.

How it was to work
Candidates were required to campaign in all the four constituencies and they were voted for in all the four constituencies. On polling day, a candidate with the highest number of combined votes from the four constituencies was declared winner to represent the primary constituency in Parliament. During elections, each voter had four ballot papers. One for the primary candidate and the three for the secondary or national candidates.

Different political scholars praised the system, had it been implemented. To the scholars, this was going to be the best political export from Africa. Prof Mazrui said it was the best innovative idea to come out of Africa.
“The proposals were in many ways the most original political reform to be recommended in Uganda since independence and also represented some of the most innovative and brilliant ideas to emerge out of Africa,” Prof Mazrui wrote in his book Cultural Engineering in Eastern Africa.
Writing in the paper Electoral Engineering in Uganda, Prof Selwyn Ryan calls the system an inventive piece.
“It was one of the most inventive pieces of electoral rule-making to have been advanced in the history of the theory of popular political representation”.

Why the new law
In coming up with the new law, which Obote called the ‘single member-multiple districts’ (constituencies), he wanted to broaden the MP’s outlook on national issues. This was because the 1962 election that ushered in Uganda’s independence was based on districts, which were tribal. In the book Political Presentation and the Future of Uganda, Goran Hyden writes: “The greatest divisive political friction which Uganda experienced after independence was the struggle between Uganda and the districts.”
All political administrative units, by 1962, were tribe-based. The four kingdoms, Busoga territory and the other districts, were all tribal in set-up and inward looking.


The four kingdoms were Buganda, Ankole, Bunyoro and Tooro, while the districts were Acholi, Bugisu, Bukedi, Karamoja, Kigezi, Lango, Madi, Sebei, Teso and West Nile. With this kind of administrative structure, loyalty of the MP’s was more to their home areas, not to the country, as foretold by the former Governor, Sir Andrew Cohen.
“Nationalism is still a less powerful force in Uganda than tribal loyalties.”
It was these loyalties that the new electoral law was trying to break.
However, the law was not short of opponents, who preferred the old system. Obote argued that the old law allowed for an MP to serve a constituency, not the country.
“A politician elected this way considers it his duty to serve the constituency and his tribe, instead of the country.”

He added: “A member of the National Assembly or any other leader who allows himself to be the mouthpiece of tribalism becomes a prisoner in shackles and is unworthy of his role.”
It was Makerere University’s political science department that first opposed the law. Among the reasons they gave in opposing the law included language barrier for the secondary constituencies and the financial implications. They also argued that in cases where a candidate getting the least votes in the primary constituency but wins because of the support from the secondary constituencies would be against the principles of democracy.

A paper in the Journal of Commonwealth Political Studies by D. Cohen and J. Parson titled The Uganda People’s Congress Branch and Constituency Elections of 1970, the authors say: “…overlapping districts are needed to form electoral alliances. Powerful district level politicians could align themselves with similar leaders in other regions to negotiate support for favoured candidates.”

Despite opposition from the academia, the electorate in general was in support for the new electoral reforms. “The legitimacy of the new electoral system was never in doubt. Public approval seemed to be widespread and the proposals were unanimously adopted by the National Executive Council and the delegates’ conference of the UPC,” writes Prof Selwyn Ryan, in a paper Uganda; Balance Sheet of the Revolution.
The reforms were shelved with the toppling of the UPC regime in January 1971. With that, the country did not experience any elections until December 1980. They were held under different rules after the 1970 electoral reforms were never implemented.