Uganda: democratic development and the 2016 elections

Jamie Hitchen‘s contribution to the Africa Research Institute

  • Uganda is a presidential republic in which the president is head of state and the government and the prime minister chairs the cabinet
  • Elections are held every five years in a political system that has been multi-party since 2006
  • A presidential run-off would take place in the event that no candidate received more than 50% of the vote in the first round but to date this provision has never been required
  • The unicameral parliament of Uganda is the country’s legislative body
  • There are 385 seats in parliament of which 263 are currently held by the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) and 34 by the main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC)
  • Presidential and legislative elections are scheduled for 18 February 2016
  • Follow the campaign on Twitter using the hashtags – #UgandaDecides #Uganda2016 #SteadyProgress #GoForward #WesigeBesigye #UGDebate16

From left, Amama Mbabazi, Yoweri Museveni and, Kizza Besigye.

Uganda had nine heads of state in its first 23 years of independence but since 1986 the country has been led by Yoweri Museveni, presidential flag bearer for the National Resistance Movement (NRM). Museveni came to power after a five year liberation struggle. In 2016, he will seek to mark 30 years at the helm by winning a fifth elected term in office. His tenure has witnessed a significant change in Uganda’s democratic environment.

In the 1990s, Uganda had a “no-party” democratic system in which political parties could exist but were not allowed to organise. In theory it allowed anyone to stand for president, providing they did not do so on a party platform. Critics viewed it as thinly-veiled authoritarianism; supporters as a way of creating inclusive politics.  Under the system, Museveni was able to secure comprehensive first round victories in the 1996 (75%) and 2001 (69%) presidential elections.

Term limit provisions set out in the 1995 Constitution precluded Museveni running again in 2006. However, political manoeuvring led to a referendum on restoring multi-party politics in 2005. Despite fewer than half of the voting-age population participating, 92.5% of those who cast ballots, did so in favour of a return to multi-party politics, in a package that also scrapped term limits.

Dr Kizza Besigye, a former liberation struggle ally and doctor to Museveni, had stood unsuccessfully in the 2001 presidential election. In 2004, he founded a political party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). It was, and remains, the main opposition party in Uganda.

In the 2006 presidential election Besigye lost in the first round, polling 37.3% of the vote to Museveni’s 59.3%. He cited foul play, but his legal challenge was thwarted by a narrow Supreme Court ruling that upheld the result.

In 2011 the same two men faced off again, with the same result. Museveni increased his share of the vote by almost 10% and the NRM scored successes in new constituencies in the north of the country for the first time. Overall, the NRM won 259 parliamentary seats of the 385 available. International observers were “shocked by the monetisation of the election”, but reported that the voting process itself was good and – despite isolated incidents of electoral malpractice – an improvement on the previous poll.

Besigye, frustrated at his previous attempt to appeal through the courts, sought to galvanise civil disobedience nationwide through a “Walk to Work” campaign two months after the election. It was met with a violent response from the state: the Uganda Law Society suggested the country was akin to a police state. In the aftermath, Besigye vowed that he would stand down to allow for a new FDC leader to emerge.

But Besigye has returned to take on Museveni for a fourth time. Politics in Uganda has become dominated by these two personalities, arguably to the detriment of key issues such as rising levels of youth unemployment. In 2016 there will be a third contender. Former Prime Minister and NRM stalwart Amama Mbabazi has defected and – to Besigye’s dismay – was selected as candidate for the Democratic Alliance, a broad opposition coalition. The FDC subsequently pulled out.

Uganda’s democratic environment is charged. Legislation such as the 2013 Public Order Management Bill has limited the space for debate. Both Besigye and Mbabazi have been targets for police aggression and the electoral commission chairman Badru Kiggundu claims to have received death threats.

Sobre Gustavo Plácido

An independent political and security risk analyst focused on Lusophone Sub-Saharan Africa. He covers Angola and Mozambique for Horizon Client Access.
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