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Foregone conclusions: Why bother with elections in countries like Uganda and Tanzania?

Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, the face of Uganda’s political opposition, has been much in the news in the past few months: usually surrounded by policemen or soldiers, sometimes wreathed in tear gas, sometimes bloodied. The violence against the opposition ahead of January’s elections was widely condemned; as was the government’s decision to close down not only social media, but all internet access. 

There has been excellent analysis of this, some of which has pointed out that lethal violence against opposition supporters is not novel in Ugandan elections. It seems that there may be little more to say beyond the obvious: no one is allowed to defeat President Yoweri Museveni. 

The same logic could be applied to Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, where the ruling party recently won flawed parliamentary and presidential elections in a landslide.

Yet that in itself raises a question. What was the point of these elections? For the incumbent government, which put a great deal of effort into holding and winning them; for the opposition candidates who braved beatings and arrest; for voters, some of whom waited hours to vote because election materials arrived late — why bother with a contest that was always so heavily skewed in favour of the incumbent? 

Our new book The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa — a comparative study of political competition in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda — answers the “why bother” question, demonstrating that even “elections without choice” are essential to the efforts of governments to project power and authority, and attract voters because they can still offer opportunities to morally critique those in power.

Why hold elections?

There are easy answers to why people continue to bother with elections, but they are not entirely convincing. Maybe elections in Uganda — and elsewhere — are simply held to please the government’s international allies in the United States and Europe, who need a pretence of democracy to justify their economic and security interests? But donors cannot be particularly pleased with these polls having criticised them in some cases, and been condemned for not taking a stronger stance in others.

We suggest that one reason governments hold elections is to show international and domestic audiences that they can. In other words, elections are a show of “stateness”. Registering voters, creating and staffing polling stations, moving voting materials to and fro: these all remind everyone (including the staff themselves — of whom there were well over a hundred thousand) of the power and reach of the state. 

Spending millions of dollars on a biometric voter identification system may seem curious in elections whose outcome is not in doubt — but it is a way to assert the capability of a modern state that knows who its citizens are. Even the violence is a kind of show, though a lethal one: making clear who has power.

Why take part in elections?

So why do citizens take part in such heavily controlled elections? Maybe popular willingness to vote is rooted in that most resilient human motivation — hope? Some of Bobi Wine’s supporters thought he really might have a chance — for a youthful population, many voting for the first time, change seemed possible. Yet there is evidence that many Ugandans do not believe that elections will change the government — and they still queue to cast their ballots.

We argue that elections that do not allow national political change can still be meaningful to voters, because they are a critical site of competing ideas of what it is to be a “good” leader. In this context, turning out to vote is an opportunity to express moral ideas about political leadership and to do one’s part for democracy — even though results may seem inevitable. “We want Bobi, not money” a crowd in Mbale City chanted, after security forces attempted to prevent him from addressing them. 

Critically, Uganda also holds presidential and parliamentary polls on the same day. As in many countries, parliamentary outcomes proved less predictable than the presidential contest. It was never likely that the opposition would gain control of parliament — but a number of ministers lost their seats, and candidates for Bobi Wine’s party won overwhelmingly in some parts of the country

These subnational contests draw people to the polls by allowing them to make moral claims, and offer moral judgments, on candidates. Our research shows that these judgments may be about material generosity: is the candidate willing to help individuals — with the costs of hospital care, or a scholarship for a child? Are they able to bring benefits to whole groups of voters — a new classroom in one place, a clinic in another? When this is the nature of the demand, being in the ruling party can be an advantage — National Resistance Movement (NRM) candidates have better access to state resources such as the emyooga “wealth creation” initiative, and their success as local patrons is part of the explanation for Museveni’s success. 

But our research also suggested that moral judgments made by voters are also about character — will candidates listen to people, are they authentic and accessible, or are they in the pocket of more senior figures and likely to flee to the capital as soon as elections are over? One voter said of their former MP: “Instead of representing us, she was bragging of how she is ever in touch with the president. That is why we threw her out”.  In areas where resentment against the incumbent government runs high, voters evidently saw virtue in a willingness to speak truth to power, and NRM candidates struggled. Tellingly, it seems that fully half of the MPs who voted to abolish presidential age limits — thereby allowing Museveni to stand — were not returned to parliament. 

Neither money nor connections guarantee victory in the contested moral economy of electoral virtue.

The power of elections

Our emphasis on the use of elections to broadcast statehood and power might imply that Uganda’s president has hit on an unbeatable formula: managing elections so they offer just enough space to keep people involved in heated moral debate and provide a ticket into the “elected leaders” club within the international community, without ever threatening his position. This was Museveni’s sixth election win, after all. 

There is a twist, however. 

The moral economy of elections can turn against incumbents. The electoral performance foregrounds order: the lists and queues and counting are supposed to follow procedure. When that procedure is undermined too flagrantly — when ballot boxes are reportedly stolen or stuffed, for example — the show of stateness is undermined and suddenly everyone can see the emperor’s new clothes. This risks public disengagement — elections can lose their role as arenas for moral debate.Voter turnout in Uganda was significantly lower than in the 2016 elections (a trend also seen in recent elections in Tanzania). This should be a warning sign to those in power: if people lose interest in elections, the state loses legitimacy. Though he has long prided himself on delivering political stability, Museveni’s legacy may be one of growing unrest and division.

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Justin Willis
Professor Justin Willis is a historian at Durham University, the author of Potent Brews: A Social History of Alcohol in East Africa, and the former director of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, based in Nairobi.
Gabrielle Lynch
Gabrielle Lynch is professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick
Nic Cheeseman
Nic Cheeseman

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and was formerly the Director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford University. He mainly works on democracy, elections and development and has conducted fieldwork in a range of African countries including Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The articles that he has published based on this research have won a number of prizes including the GIGA award for the best article in Comparative Area Studies (2013) and the Frank Cass Award for the best article in Democratization (2015). 

Professor Cheeseman is also the author or editor of ten books, including Democracy in Africa (2015), Institutions and Democracy in Africa (2017), How to Rig an Election (2018), and Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective (2018). In addition, he is the founding editor of the Oxford Encyclopaedia of African Politics, a former editor of the journal African Affairs, and an advisor to, and writer for, Kofi Annan's African Progress Panel. A frequent commentator of African and global events, Professor Cheeseman’s analysis has appeared in the Economist, Le Monde, Financial Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, Daily Nation and he writes a regular column for the Mail & Guardian. In total, his articles have been read over a million times. Many of his interviews and insights can be found on the website that he founded and co-edits,

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