Public Policy Institute (PPI)

A Political Economy Analysis of Uganda’s Political And Legal Electoral Reforms:

February 10, 2022

The end of the Cold War brought with it seemingly enormous changes in the structure and conduct of international politics. Old certainties were swept aside in what appeared to be a chaotic and insecure world as hopes for a new world order emerged against the backdrop of dramatic and dire warnings of a ‘coming anarchy’ (Kaplan, 2000). In contrast, and though often exaggerated, the trend towards democratic government that began in southern Europe in the mid-1970s swept like a re through Latin America in the 1980s, and spread to many parts of Asia, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Together with the collapse of Soviet-sponsored communism and the globalisation of the international economic system, it propelled the world from the post-war period into a new era. Nevertheless, the spread of democracy has by no means eradicated political repression or con ict, though it has tremendously increased freedoms and fostered the hope that the next century might be less fraught with political rivalry and ruination than the present one.

In Uganda, a short-lived multiparty political dispensation under Obote II in the early 1980s was replaced by the National Resistance Movement (NRM) under the command of General Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who ascended to state power in 1986, promising ‘not a mere change of guard but a fundamental change’. Indeed, Uganda promulgated a new constitution in 1995 that ushered in what seemed a progressive electoral democratic order, with the provisions for regular elections and democratic checks and balances. Since then, the country has successfully held four1 regular multiparty general elections, which in itself demonstrates a signi cant positive departure from the country’s chequered political past. However, Uganda’s electoral architecture and process have, throughout the new constitutional order, been replete with signi cant contestations regarding its quality and its response to the wider citizen aspirations. In the recent general elections (2020/2021), the ruling NRM presented the electorate with a dismal record of scandal, power of incumbency and widespread popular despondency. It was therefore expected that it would lose ground in the elections, though few believed that it would lose its longstanding majority in Parliament. But buoyed up by the personal popularity of its leader, President Museveni, who billed himself as a revolutionary, the NRM was again returned to political power. Although the result was NRM’s most controversial since the return to multipartyism in 2005, it ‘won’ with 59% of the popular vote. However, voter turnout was a paltry 57%.

In this political economy analysis, I explore ‘optimistic’ and ‘pessimistic’ interpretations of the 2020/21 general elections. Optimists conclude that, given the alternatives offered by NRM rivals, the electorate – even when it was cajoled – opted for the political centre. The implication is that, despite its challenges, Uganda’s democracy is maturing. The pessimists, though, argue that electoral statistics demonstrate an alarming lack of popular participation in the electoral process due to strategic manipulation, increasing political alienation and a shift in voting to the political extremes, and conclude that democracy is being hollowed out. Going forward, the competing merits of these explanations will be examined, with a view to assessing the prospects for political and legal electoral reforms in Uganda.


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