A model of stability, Uganda debates 'no-party democracy'

Relative peace and economic reform highlight its lack of multiparty politics.

A month after a referendum that was supposed to direct Uganda's political future, the country is still trying to grapple with a difficult choice: whether to allow political parties to operate.

Although a multiparty system is something that most Westerners take for granted, here it is laced with a bitter - and often embarrassing - history.

President Yoweri Museveni argues that political parties are divisive in Africa, forming along ethnic or religious lines. He says such division encourages the kind of terror that tore apart Uganda through the 1970s and early '80s, when half a million people were killed in civil war and political violence under presidents Idi Amin and Milton Obote.

Instead, Mr. Museveni has run Uganda since 1986 on a system called the Movement, which he calls "no-party democracy." Citizens have the right to vote, but candidates cannot run under party banners. Parties are not explicitly banned, but they might as well be: The Constitution says they cannot open branch offices, recruit members, hold rallies or delegate conferences, or simply conduct "any activities that may interfere with the Movement political system." Critics say this system, in actuality, is closer to Fidel Castro's Cuba or to Peru's de facto dictatorship than to a Western democratic paradigm.

Despite these restrictions, the West considers Museveni's Uganda one of Africa's best examples of stability and harmony. Peace prevails through most of the country. The economy's annual growth rate over the past 12 years is 7 percent. And donor nations have heaped praise on Uganda for adopting liberal economic policies. Such success under the Movement means the country's continued search for a political model could have significant implications for the rest of the continent.

THE Movement system was put to the test in late June in a referendum asking Ugandans to choose the status quo or the multiparty system. The result was mixed: Although 90 percent of those who cast ballots chose the Movement, only half of registered voters turned out. The Movement claimed victory, but so did the restricted political parties, Uganda People's Congress (UPC) and the Democratic Party, which had called for a referendum boycott.

"The big question is: What's next?" says a Western diplomat based in Kampala, the capital. "How will it have helped Uganda move toward multipartyism, which the government says will come eventually, and what path will the government take in the meantime?"

"We are hearing a remarkably broad consensus that there should be an opening up of political space," he says. "The question is whether Museveni is hearing that consensus and whether he'll act on it."

Museveni faces a presidential election in early 2001, seen by many observers to be even more important for the country's future than the referendum. Critics feel the restrictions on parties, coupled with the Movement's funding from state coffers, give him a huge advantage over other presidential candidates. Meanwhile, a bill that would lift some restrictions on parties has been repeatedly delayed.

But in recent weeks, the parties have begun testing the limits in defiance of the Constitution. The UPC has started opening branches, and the Democratic Party is actively discussing how to select a new leader. All of this prompted a threat from the National Political Commissar James Wapakhabulo: "Those who are out to defy the people's choice should think twice, for they risk a serious brush with the law."

Various groups are in turn speaking out more strongly. "We feel that by restricting political activity, democracy can't flourish," says Denise Lifton of Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, a Ugandan pressure group. "From a Western perspective, you cannot have democracy without political pluralism."

"Political pluralism is healthy for democracy," says Rev. Grace Kaiso of the Referendum Monitoring Cluster, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations. "What I believe," he says, "is there should be space for people to express themselves that would bring vitality to the political process."

Yet many Ugandans are happy to see another side to the political parties, which have dubious records as democrats. UPC is still headed by former President Obote from exile in Zambia. His two terms in power were characterized by a suspension of the Constitution, arrests of cabinet ministers, extra-judicial killings, and the murders of members of Parliament. The favored Democratic Party presidential candidate is former Kampala mayor Nasser Sebaggala, who recently spent a year in jail in the United States on fraud charges.

"The leadership of the political parties here is just embarrassing," says the Western diplomat. "This is not an opposition that is easy for Western governments to support as part of a healthy democracy."

The Movement also has its shortcomings. The Army has been accused of atrocities against civilians - and even with all the economic growth the country is still dirt poor, with per capita annual income averaging $320.

Observers are also questioning the fairness of the referendum campaign. The Movement received preferential access to state-owned radio and television, campaign help from government officials, and extra public funds. Little voter education took place. Voting-day irregularities included a district in which 99.9 percent of the electorate allegedly cast ballots.

In a recent report on the referendum, some members of Parliament said little has changed in Ugandan politics under the Movement. They pointed to the high turnout in Western Uganda - Museveni's power base - and said, "The picture only reinforces the fact that politics in Uganda has remained sectarian and ethnic."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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