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{UAH} Allan/Gook/Pojim: In Uganda, an election is only seen as free and fair if you win

In Uganda, an election is only seen as free and fair if you win

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Going by the conventional criteria for judging whether a political system or country is democratic, which include "regular, competitive, multiparty" or "multicandidate" elections, Uganda has never been as democratic as it is today.

It is slightly over 18 months since we went to the polls to elect a president. Yoweri Museveni, who continued to lead the National Resistance Movement into the contest, won again.

As has become customary since he first put himself forward for election way back in 1996, his victory was dogged by controversy and in many ways still is. He is not alone.

As testimony to the degree to which elections are taken by candidates and their supporters as worthwhile only if they win, there have been many disputed victories. Losers have dragged scores of newly elected Members of Parliament to court.

In their pursuit of victory at whatever cost, candidates usually employ multiple dirty tricks. And these, at the end of the day, catch up with them, when their opponents eventually expose the tricks they used to win.

Which is why, over the past 18 months, Ugandans in different parts of the country have remained in election mode. No sooner do the courts nullify the election of this or that Member of Parliament, than it is election fever all over again. Soon enough political parties wheel out their chosen candidates.

Ugandans do not believe in insisting that people pay the price of whatever dishonesty they have engaged in. So when it comes to by-elections, even those declared by courts of law to have cheated their way to parliament are allowed to run again.

And perhaps not surprisingly, given that political cultures cut across political divides, in this the ruling party and its rivals in opposition behave exactly the same way, choosing to front the same cheating candidates. It goes to show why one should be cautious about imagining that the NRM's departure from power will necessarily bring about radical change in the way we think about and practise politics.

And as it happens, two days ago, there was a by-election in one of Kampala's peri-urban constituencies. During the previous parliamentary election, the ruling party candidate lost to his rival from the main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change. He went to court.

The court declared the outcome null and void. Had the recent race been between the two rivals, who knows, maybe the winner of the petition would have taken the seat this time round. Or maybe the voters would have stuck with the man they chose to represent them.

It wasn't to be. The NRM and FDC stuck to their original candidates. But then there came a man from nowhere.

Opposition leaning and keen to contest as an opposition party candidate, he sought the FDC ticket and failed. He decided he would go it alone. He may be a famous entertainer, certainly among Uganda's most talented musicians, but in the world of politics Kyagulanyi pretty much counted for nothing. Until he hit the campaign trail and started drawing large crowds, that is.

This is where Uganda's conventional credentials as a democratic country come in for questioning.

The campaigning was neither orderly nor peaceful. Crowds of supporters of rival candidates fought running battles, caused general disruption, and damaged property, including cars belonging to innocent motorists who happened to be passing by. And then the campaign speeches and promises!

There he was, being quoted by media, explaining to the people of Kyaddondo East constituency why their area is underdeveloped, and what they had to do if they wanted things to change for the better.

While out campaigning for his candidate, President Museveni told locals that the problem with them was that they had voted for opposition politicians who were not close to him, who therefore never took their problems to him so he could find solutions thereto.

If they wanted clean water and other services, it was time to vote for his party's candidate. It was the kind of thing that makes you hold your breath.

And then came the day of the election. Such was the number of police and army troops in the area, together with their armoured troop carriers, tear-gas dispensers, automatic weapons and anti-riot paraphernalia, one would have been forgiven for thinking that this part of Uganda's capital was in the midst of an insurgency.

This being an opposition-leaning constituency, it was easy to conclude that all this had been calculated to intimidate voters and possibly lay the ground for rigging in favour of the ruling-party candidate. Given the mayhem surrounding the campaigns, that bordered on overstatement.

Whatever the case, however, the voters of Kyaddondo East did something Ugandans don't do often enough: They refused to be swayed by promises of good times ahead if they voted as told, or follow the party line.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail:

In Uganda, an election is only seen as free and fair if you win - The East African

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone.

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