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Democracy : the performance of civil society and media in the absence of political opposition

More than twenty years of inhibition of activities of political parties
in Uganda has had a great impact on their performance. It is more than
two years since they were allowed to organize but their impact as a
vibrant political opposition is yet to be felt. Two important actors
therefore took the position of highlighting the excesses and failures of
government, a role that would ordinarily be played by political parties
or opposition. The media and civil society organizations (NGOs) have
been instrumental in shaping public opinion and rallying the masses
about the shortcomings of President Yoweri Museveni’s government.
Even after the introduction of multiparty democracy in 2005, civil
society continues to wield a lot of influence in determining the political
trend of the country.

The growth in political party strength after the re-introduction of
multiparty democracy has generally tended to be positive. Though
political space is not duly competitive especially due to deliberate
restrictive government maneuvers, it is anticipated that more gains will be realized as the public embraces multiparty democracy and shuns
individual merit systems. This paper analyzes how civil society and
media have shaped the political trend in Uganda in the absence of an
official opposition. We compare government and peoples attitudes
towards multiparty democracy and explore how the transformations
after the introduction of a multiparty system are influencing
institutional development and democratic governance in Uganda. The
paper constructs and defends a blended analytical approach to
evaluation of attempts by political parties to fight for increased space. It
takes a historical as well as current approach in analyzing the trend of
events in Uganda’s movement in the democratic path and what it has
achieved so far.

Genesis of multiparty democracy in Uganda

In 1967, Uganda got a Republican constitution, which maintained a
multi-party system of Government. The Constitution stipulated that
after a general election, the Party with greatest numerical strength of
the elected members would form the government. Further, under the
Constitution, members of the National Assembly were deemed to have
been elected for a term of five years. Parliament under the Republican
Constitution was the Second Parliament of Uganda. The elections
provided for under this new Constitution were never held due to the
military coup which took place in January 1971. From 1971 to 1979 the
Uganda Parliament was in abeyance, having been suspended by Field
Marshall Idi Amin Dada, the then military leader.

Following the overthrow of the military regime in 1979, Uganda
got an Interim Parliament known as the National Consultative Council.
It was initially composed of 30 members who were elected at Moshi,
Tanzania, but was later in 1979 expanded to 120 members. The Interim
Parliament continued to be the Supreme Legislative Body until the
general elections that were held in 1980. This was the Third Parliament
of the Republic of Uganda.

When the NRM usurped power in 1986, they introduced a quasi
parliament mainly consisting of ministers and NRA apologists. In
February 1989, new legislation recognized the appointments of the
original 38 members of the NRC and provided for the enlargement of
the NRC through the election and appointment of additional members.
Each county and each district would elect one representative (only
women could be candidates for district representative). In addition, one
or more of the representatives would be elected by municipalities,
depending on the size of their populations. The original parliamentary
representatives were legitimized by their participation in the guerrilla
struggle, not by elections. Although political figures that had not been
part of the NRM or NRA during the war were later appointed to the
NRC and in 1989 elected to it, the original NRC members continued to
occupy a privileged position. They did not have to stand for election to
the NRC. In addition, their special status was formalized in February
1989 with the creation of the National Executive Committee (NEC), a
standing committee of the NRC, to contain these original members
plus one elected member from each district and ten members
appointed by the chair of the NRC from among its members. The
NRC was later to transform into the Constituent Assembly (CA) that
formulated the 1995 constitution. In 1996 a fresh parliament was
constituted under the newly promulgated constitution that barred
individuals from contesting for office on a political party platform. The
restriction of political party activities was therefore achieved at this
stage in a semi-legal fashion. Though unacceptably and unfathomably
inconceivable especially in the eyes of international legal instruments,
this obnoxious law was to be applied to all political opposition in
Uganda for the next ten years or so in spite of strong resistance from
both within and outside the country.

A referendum was held in March 2000 on whether Uganda should
retain the Movement system, with limited operation of political parties,
or adopt multi-party politics. Although 70% of voters endorsed
retention of the Movement system, the referendum was widely
criticized for low voter turnout and unfair restrictions on Movement
opponents. Museveni was re-elected to a second five-year term in
March 2001. Parliamentary elections were held in June 2001, and more
than 50% of contested seats were won by newcomers. Movement
supporters nevertheless remained in firm control of the legislative
branch. Observers believed that the 2001 presidential and
parliamentary elections generally reflected the will of the electorate ;
however, both were marred by serious irregularities, particularly in the
period leading up to the elections, such as restrictions on political party
activities, incidents of violence, voter intimidation, and fraud.

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Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.