AD417: Elections in Uganda: A better mechanism for accountability than for representation?

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Dispatches
2020
417
Ronald Makanga Kakumba

Elections play a crucial role in every democratic system of government as a mechanism for producing a legislature that is representative of the policy preferences of the electorate (Thomassen, 2014), linking citizens’ priorities to the behavior of their policy makers (Powell, 2000). By the same logic, elections enable voters to select leaders and hold them accountable for their performance in office. In other words, the electoral process determines who should stay in office, who should be thrown out of office, and who should replace those who are thrown out (Harrop & Miller, 1987).

Concretely, elections should produce leaders who represent and respond to voters’ views, as well as a government that serves both ruling-party and opposition supporters equitably. Where elections do not accomplish these tasks, they cannot be described as successful.

Since 1995, Uganda has been conducting regular presidential, parliamentary, and local government elections every five years. However, most of these elections have been marred by claims of voter bribery (Kakumba, 2020) and other irregularities. In the 2016 elections, for example, more than one-third of the parliamentary results were disputed in courts of law. Since 2001, four presidential elections have been contested in court, including a 2011 case that touched off a deadly wave of walk-to-work protests (Citizen’s Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, 2018), and in more than three decades, no election has produced a change in presidential power in Uganda.

Despite persistent challenges in Uganda’s elections, the most recent Afrobarometer survey indicates that Ugandans are gaining confidence in their elections as tools for holding non- performing leaders accountable. At the same time, most citizens don’t think their elected leaders listen to what they have to say, and only half see their elections as ensuring that their views are reflected in policy decisions.

As Ugandans prepare to go to the polls again in January, how they perceive the impact of voting, the responsiveness of their elected leaders, and the efficacy of elections may help determine voter turnout and, feeding a virtuous or vicious circle that comes around every five years, build or undermine voter confidence in the electoral system.