One of the more celebrated attributes of elected governments is their responsiveness to popular concerns and wishes.
This is perhaps the strongest reason for arguing that elections are the fittest mechanisms for choosing leaders.
Leaders who are not subject to elections either because they are appointed by someone or by a small clique of people, or those who govern by virtue of who they are by birth, are potentially harmful.
They are apt to govern or rule arbitrarily and not pay attention to the wishes of those under their authority, because after all they are not the ones who chose them.
If there is one good reason why monarchies and hereditary chieftaincies have been toppled and replaced with elected leaderships, this is it. Or at least that is what advocates of “democracy” will tell you.
The beauty of elections is that they enable people who are otherwise powerless to exercise some real power over elected occupants of public office.
In its strongest form, the responsiveness argument envisages ordinary people expressing their desire for things such as healthcare, good schools, paved roads, clean water, safety of person and property and so on, and leaders doing their best to deliver on these popular expectations. If not, voters will use the ballot box to throw them out at the earliest opportunity.
This, of course, is mainly theory. In real life, politics works rather differently. There is, for example, that elections present an opportunity for voters or potential voters to enjoy themselves, make money and receive gifts from people who want to be elected. Here, votes are usually up for sale to the highest bidder.
The rationale is that voters want up front their share of the benefits they believe the elected person will enjoy because of their elevated position.
In contexts where this happens, the last thing they want to hear are elaborate speeches about policy and candidates’ good intentions.
To stand a chance of winning, a candidate must be prepared to spend a fortune. Some go as far as mortgaging their homes.
Uganda’s “highly competitive” politics is a good case study for anyone wishing to look into the details of this phenomenon.
After the elections, voters’ collective expectations from governments are usually modest.
Where they have problems or challenges of a personal nature, such as lacking school fees for their children, money for medical bills, or even to pay for burial expenses in the event of bereavement, things are different.
Here they call on individual leaders, Members of Parliament, especially, for assistance. It is in connection with this that a leader who is not “responsive,” will suffer punishment at the polls.
And this is where we get into tricky territory, where the other side of responsiveness constitutes the dark side of democracy as we practise it.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni brought this out well when he visited Nairobi recently to speak at a conference on the Blue Economy.
He told his audience something Ugandans have known for a long time and to which they attribute some of the most glaring failures by his government in terms of making necessary but unpopular policy decisions and acting on them.
President Museveni who never tires of emphasising his credentials as a democrat not least because he “fought” and “defeated” dictatorship, admitted publicly for the first time that democracy is “problematic.”
At the centre of the problem of democracy, he averred, is the politicians’ need for votes.
This need means that “you go easy” on lawbreakers such as encroachers on forests and wetlands.
Ugandans would add encroachers on road reserves and on other people’s property, violators of urban planning regulations, of traffic rules, and of laws regulating where, how and when to engage in trading activities.
Many Ugandans have become masters at ignoring laws and regulations and even resisting their enforcement.
Encroachers on forests and wetlands do not hesitate to ask whoever turns up to remove them, where it is they are expected to go.
What must have started as isolated cases of lawbreaking without consequence has now become something of an epidemic.
Today almost everyone – ordinary citizens, government officials, diplomats, soldiers, police officers, Members of Parliament – breaks the law every now and again, because everyone else is also doing it too.
So extensive is the lawbreaking that, for example, traffic cops, overwhelmed by it all, will see a motorcyclist carrying four passengers on a motorcycle meant for two and do nothing.
Local authority officials will act as if they do not notice as residential and commercial properties mushroom in wetlands and on road reserves, one reason Kampala is so prone to flooding these days.
These same elected local officials will even jump to the defence of the lawbreakers. To intimidate law enforcers, they mouth the now familiar mantra “leave my voters alone.” The hapless, law enforcers then comply.
All this shows how a country’s laws can be abused in the name of politics. But there is a question we should all be asking: How do we ensure that so-called democracy does not undermine the effectiveness of the state at performing its functions and endanger everybody?
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]