Op-Ed: Uganda’s Constitutional Court upholds scrapping of presidential age limits

PUBLISHED: Fri, 03 Aug 2018 16:58:52 GMT
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By Jared Jeffery, Political Analyst at NKC African Economics

On Thursday, July 26, the constitutional court approved the amendment to the Constitution scrapping age limits on the presidency (previously, a president could only be elected between the ages of 35 and 75 years old), with four judges supporting and one rejecting.

This will allow President Yoweri Museveni (73) to contest elections once again in 2021 and possibly extend his rule (currently going on 32 years).

The amendments extending term lengths for members of Parliament (MP) and local government leaders from five to seven years, however, were rejected by all five judges along with the reintroduction of term limits for the presidency.

All-in-all, Mr Museveni can chalk this one up as another victory in his campaign to remain at the helm indefinitely.

The scrapping of the age limit was always the most important amendment of those passed last December. The term extension for MPs was a deal sweetener from Mr Museveni to ensure the passage of the amendment.

Thus, now the president has got his constitutional change on the cheap.

To understand why a term extension was such a big deal for MPs, one needs to understand that competition for lucrative parliamentary seats is so fierce that candidates get into serious debt running for office with the expectation that they will recoup their investments once in the House.

Research by Sam Wilkins of Oxford University found that in 2016’s elections MPs spent as much as $162,000 on their campaigns. Once in, MPs have to be sure they get out of debt and make enough of a profit to ensure the process was worthwhile, because it is likely that they will only hold office for one term – only 42% of ruling party MPs were returned to the house in the most recent election. Thus, adding two years to the terms would help them turn a profit on the venture.

The reintroduction of term limits on the presidency (scrapped in 2005 in exchange for multiparty ‘democracy’) was another part of the deal, but thanks to the ruling on Thursday Mr Museveni does not have to worry about that either.

If the term length for MPs had been approved, Mr Museveni would have pushed for another constitutional amendment to extend the presidential term length to seven years as well (arguing that it would be impracticable to have different lengths and costly to run separate elections). That would have required a referendum as Parliament alone would not be able to make the amendment.

Such a referendum would have been a rallying point for the opposition and could have led to tensions and instability.

We had factored in such a referendum in our medium-term risk assessment. Without the need for this, risk in the run-up to elections in 2021 is now likely to be lower than it would have been.

A referendum on presidential term lengths would have been a testing period for Mr Museveni, and so he is better off without it – another way in which he has benefited from the ruling.

Afrobarometer polling prior to the scrapping of age limits on the presidency showed that 75% of Ugandans were against amending the constitution (81% of urbanites and 72% of rural dwellers).

This is not because Ugandans do not want old presidents (though the vast majority of the electorate is young), but because they understood the question to be: “do you want President Museveni to change the law to stay in power.”

As such, many will be angered by the court’s decision to uphold the amendment and government legitimacy (in a country where this basically refers to the president) will have taken a knock.

The amendment itself, as we have argued all along, is not that odious. It is arbitrary to have an upper age limit on the presidency. As long as an individual is capable of fulfilling the obligations of the office, they should be allowed to stand for elections and let the people decide.

The problem in Uganda is that meritocracy does not come into it and people do not feel they can decide at elections due to rigging.

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