With party primaries already complete and elections scheduled for early 2021, it is important to consider the growing costs of running for election in Uganda.
New research, drawing on data from over 250 aspirants who ran with varying degrees of success for office in 2016, shows the average spending of a parliamentary candidate during the 2016 primary and general elections was UGX 465-million ($136 000). The overall costs were higher in western and central regions and consistently below the average in eastern and northern parts — a pattern that broadly reflects the distribution of poverty.
The outlay continues in office, with MPs spending on average UGX 32-million each month to meet constituent demands and obligations; more than their official monthly salary of UGX 30-million.
Why does this matter? In every region, candidates who won spent more on average than those who did not, meaning many Ugandans — particularly women and young people — are increasingly excluded from running for office because they cannot afford it. This is despite Uganda having one of the world’s youngest populations.
In 2021 the cost of politics could rise further, despite the unique election environment, due to Covid-19. When asked, more than three-quarters of survey respondents said they would spend more when running again for office.
Several factors explain this: weak local government places the burden of service delivery on MPs; high and rising privileges for MPs; no effective oversight of campaign expenditure; low levels of voter education; and the way elections offer a chance to rise in the ruling party.
There are possible remedies that include promoting local accountability, tackling patriarchal politics, and strengthening the Electoral Commission’s ability to enforce regulations. But they will require sustained political will to enable Uganda to build a value- and policy-driven electoral system, not a monetary one. This is something that has not been in evidence during the recent party primary processes, which have indicated that Uganda’s 2021 election promises to be business as usual.
Emmanuel Kitamirike and Peter Kisaakye work for the Public Policy Institute in Kampala, Uganda. The research was funded by Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy