The magnitude of electoral reforms in Uganda

Incumbent President Museveni sworn in for fifth term
Incumbent President Museveni has ruled Uganda since 1986. He is one of Africa's longest-serving leaders - Courtesy Photo.

An electoral system is viewed as one of the most influential of all political institutions and is essential to broader issues of governance. Therefore elections are in all probability still the most plausible way in which citizens can influence democratic governance.

Competitive elections in a healthy political environment are the hallmark of a modern representative democracy. However, the crafting of good institutions and effective electoral systems that are sync with the country context are crucial for attaining both democratic elections and a stable political environment

The most salient feature of an electoral system is proportionality and accountability. A government that is accountable is one which is accountable to the voters. Voters for their part should be able to influence the shape of government; to vote non-performers out of power and to alter party coalitions.

Choosing an electoral system is about choosing between competing democratic values. The choice of an electoral system has an important bearing on whether citizens will be closely linked to their political leaders and whether they can demand real accountability and responsiveness.

However, the challenge of electoral system designs is how to determine the degree of trade-off and how optimally to combine elements of the two.

The electoral system which is the basis of electoral democracy must be representative of the different constituencies and particular circumstances that exist in a country at a given time. As such there may be a need to review the electoral system from time to time in order to maintain credibility of electoral democracy. Election reform in this essentially means looking at the system and deciding which aspects are working well and those that are not.

To reform an electoral system is to overhaul it entirely or to change an aspect of it so that it enhances the public’s desire and expectation of fairer representation and democratic governance. Therefore, does the country’s electoral system continue to serve the present needs of Ugandans and is it the optimal choice for consolidating democracy?.Part of the maturing of our democracy means that we need to revisit our electoral system.

It is important to ask what the objective of the reform is; is it to foster inclusiveness, accountability or political stability?. Different countries are pursuing different objectives when they seek to reform their electoral systems. For most established democracies, it’s more about inclusiveness and accountability while for post conflict societies it’s more about inclusiveness, representation and political stability.

However, changing an electoral system is no easy task even in a stable democracy. Electoral system reform movements are usually driven by the fragmentation of a dominant one party system, party de-alignments, rampant political scandals or severe government failures, public dissatisfaction, fairness of the political systems etc.

As a rule, political parties prefer to retain the electoral system that is advantageous to them and campaign to reform the system that is disadvantageous to them.

At the core of debate in Uganda on electoral reform is the composition of the electoral commission, campaign time leverage, access to media, vetting of electoral officials, and role of security forces in counting votes among others.

Whatever the prospects of reform, the renewed debate on electoral system reform is most welcome as it raises significant issues that are pertinent to the deepening of democratic governance in Uganda. Conversely note that electoral reform alone might not necessarily enhance accountability. However reform must be motivated by broader national interests rather than parochial self-serving interests.

By Albert G. Mugumya, Specialist in Conflict, Peace and Security and Kampala Dispatch contributor