Ugandan MPs in move to defer elections to 2021

Saturday March 22 2014

Ugandan parliament in session. There are plans to extend their current term in office. Photo/FILE

Ugandan parliament in session. There are plans to extend their current term in office. Photo/FILE 

By GAAKI KIGAMBO Special Correspondent

A proposal some legislators are quietly pushing to defer the 2016 General Election to 2021 could inadvertently gain stimulus from the row between President Yoweri Museveni and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi.

Sources in the political circles said the split has amplified the MPs’ worries that their already slim chances of re-election might be completely eroded should their man not come out on top.

This reality has given rise to the idea of an extension, which is being justified as necessary to make time for electoral reforms.

For opposition and civil society groups, this could potentially be the cost of unintended consequences, they could end up paying for the comprehensive electoral reforms that they have consistently demanded the government to carry out to guarantee a level playing field for free and fair elections.

Kafeero Ssekitoleko, an Independent MP who has become the face of the proposal to put off the elections, says while fears of re-election could be true for some MPs, they represent a minority and their worries are not the foremost reason for a Bill that is likely to come out of the proposal.

“Opposition parties have always argued and agitated for electoral reforms. They keep saying the ground is not level and so they can never win any election until that ground is levelled. Knowing that the government is keen to listen to even minority voices, this is an issue that needs to be resolved once and for all. But, if you are to review the constitution to address matters of election, you definitely need time,” Mr Ssekitoleko argued.

He said those arguing that only a short period is required to make the necessary electoral reforms seem unaware that it is not only the electoral landscape which needs review but over 60 per cent of the Constitution’s provisions.

“Whenever we are working we encounter all sorts of lacunas. If we have a chance of reviewing the Constitution, let’s do it once and for all. The piecemeal reviews will not work. We will be wasting time when we could do the work once and for all,” he said.

Those who want the elections deferred cite other key expensive national exercises that are packed inside the remaining 24 months to the polls.

They include a general review of the Constitution, conducting a national census, and rolling out the national ID, which together with the elections, require at least Ush1.5 trillion ($581 million).

They say the government cannot fund all the activities, especially now that its partners are closing their taps over the homosexuality law. Civil society groups have strongly rejected the proposal.

“Regular, free and fair elections are commanded by our Constitution and are the platform through which we as Ugandans mandate those who will provide leadership and serve this country. Any proposals that undermine this social contract between our leaders and us will be resisted by all means as commanded by our Constitution,” reads a joint statement from three civil society groupings.

They discredit the reason given for the proposal, saying that not only has the government repeatedly boasted of relying on donors for only a fraction of its budget, it is inconceivable that it had planned to cover the costs of all these exercises using donor money.

Bishop Zac Niringiye, an advocate of good governance, accuses the State of deliberately distorting the message on free and fair elections.

He adds that President Museveni “has never cared for elections. So, if he can get it cheaper, he will negotiate for that. There are reinforcing interests: the MPs want to stay on as well as (President) Museveni because most know they won’t return in the next election.”

Although Sabiti Makara, a political scientist at Makerere University, agrees MPs might be opportunistic in seeking an extension, he says President Museveni is unlikely to buy into it because of the way he likes to present himself as a popular leader.

“President Museveni likes to tell the whole world how he is popularly elected by the people. He is always eager to beat his opponents hands down. So for him to accept an extension of his term would be dragging him back to the days of the leadership he has always despised,” Mr Makara argued.

On Friday, March 21, the ruling NRM party caucus met for the sixth time to try and resolve tensions over the future leadership of the party and, in effect, Uganda.
It is not clear whether the caucus that reportedly took place at State House Entebbe discussed the proposal for a Bill, to be known as the “Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Council Extension Bill 2014”.

Both Peter Nyombi, the Attorney-General, and Stephen Tashobya, the chairperson of the Legal and Parliamentary Committee, have denied knowledge of the proposal’s existence.

“I have also read it in the papers. What I know is it hasn’t been discussed in Cabinet or any such forum,” Mr Nyombi said.“It is not in the committee. I have not seen it and neither have I been consulted about it. In any case I don’t think anything like that would pass because it would be a step back in our democratic process. Its proponents should be discouraged,” Mr Tashobya said.

Mr Tashobya said there is no justifiable reason to warrant an extension of elections to reform the electoral system because there is enough time until the next elections to do what needs to be done about it.

His views are similar to those by civil society groups who consider the proposal nothing more than a poor attempt at hoodwinking Ugandans.

“In many of our neighbouring countries where extensive constitutional review processes have been undertaken, they have not lasted beyond 18 months.  In Zambia, for instance, the Patriotic Front government embarked on making a new constitution in 2012 and by mid-2013, the process was complete,” said Crispy Kaheru, who co-ordinates the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, which convenes 600 other organisations to enhance citizens’ participation in Uganda’s political processes.

“Tanzania has been undertaking a constitutional review process over the last one and a half years.  That, just like in Zambia, has not interrupted the electoral cycle. Tanzania will still hold its elections next year 2015 as stipulated in their constitution; which has undergone extensive review,” he added.