Ugandans face paradox in referendum

Ugandans go to the polls this week to vote in a referendum on scrapping a nearly 20-year-old ban on multi-party politics billed by the government as a bold step toward democratisation.

But the electoral reform has been decried by the opposition as an empty gesture intended to cement President Yoweri Museveni’s hold on power and hide his alleged ambition to rule for life behind a facade of political pluralism.

And as once enthusiastic foreign donors look increasingly askance at the former guerrilla fighter’s leadership, many see Thursday’s vote as less of a test of African democracy than a referendum on Museveni himself.

Museveni and his supporters, who pushed a controversial constitutional amendment rescinding presidential term limits through Parliament this month, are urging an overwhelming “yes” vote while the weak and fractured opposition want the country’s 8,9-million eligible voters to boycott the polls.

Yet few believe the boycott will dent the widely expected passage of the referendum that would bring an end to the “no-party democracy” Museveni imposed on Uganda after storming to power in 1986 and has fought until now to preserve.

A similar call failed miserably five years ago when 90% of voters turned out for an earlier referendum on multi-party politics that endorsed a continuation of the system Museveni now wants to repeal.

Under current rules, political parties are allowed to exist but may not have branch offices and may not field candidates in elections. The only fully-functioning political entity is Museveni’s own “Movement” organisation to which all Ugandans theoretically belong.

To some, Museveni’s new stance is a striking climb-down for a man who long argued Uganda’s disastrous past under Idi Amin and Milton Obote was due to ethnic, tribal and religious divisions fomented by political parties.

To others, however, it is a sham concession aimed at blunting growing international concern about the state of Ugandan democracy with the end of term limits and Museveni’s plan to stand for re-election next year.

The president’s campaign for a “yes” vote has centered largely on telling Ugandans the change will strengthen Movement and provide viable alternatives for dissenters now confined by law to his camp.

“By opening up political space, we shall be allowing those who have persistently refused to associate with us to go,” he said this month. “Let them go.”

But the opposition, which never subscribed to the merits of the current system despite the perhaps surprising economic gains the country has made in the past two decades, sees no goodwill in Museveni plans.

“We have had wars in the west, east and north of the country under Museveni’s rule even without party politics,” said Wafula Ogutu of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change.

Paul Semogerere, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, maintains that political rights should not be put to a vote and notes that Museveni has already purged the Movement of foes which opposed his plans to run for a third term.

“This is a right,” he told a rally last week in Kampala.
“It is like a right to eat. A right to life, all of which cannot be a subject of a vote. I for one will not vote in the referendum because that is a cruel joke.”

In addition to suspicion about the real motives behind the change, there have been complaints about the referendum’s multimillion-dollar expense and the complexity of the question being presented to largely illiterate voters without the benefit of a widespread civic education campaign.

The ballot asks: “Do you agree to open up the political space to allow those who wish to join different organisations/parties to do so to compete for political power?”

That question, according to university professor Mwambusa Ndebesa, is “a mouthful, meaningless and done in a bad faith”. - Sapa-AFP

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