As the 2021 general elections gain momentum, I have spent some quality time chatting with some former, current and prospective members of parliament known to me in various capacities.
I have particularly been keen on establishing a rough estimate of how much it can cost to put up a formidable campaign. Among the many responses, the most intriguing is from one of the current legislators who represents one of the constituencies in western Uganda.
The response is that while a formidable campaign can be relative, a prospective honourable needs about Shs 400 million and the emphasis was that this money is not even meant to guarantee anything but just to ensure that at least, most voters can recognize one’s face as one of the candidates.
Nevertheless, there are some exceptions where due to a general decline in the popularity of an incumbent’s popularity, the voters can choose to vote some seemingly unpopular person or a political novice who understandably lacks the big monies to invest in the campaigns.
This is done in the spirit of giving another person a chance to also go to parliament and “eat”. I also learnt that the costs for campaigning vary considerably across regions with the Central and Western regions being the most expensive areas for a candidate to buy their way into parliament.
Thus, it is clear, right from the onset, what most voters and their legislators expect from the whole façade of democratic representation. It follows logically that the absence of clear and consistent political ideologies and the periphery importance of candidates’ manifestos imply that the voter-candidate relationship is one of simply “eating.”
By voting a candidate due to their ability to give cash handouts, the voters forego the right to have their interests and views represented in parliament.
Consequently, the role of most legislators is to grab as much as possible from the national cake and, where possible, deliver some crumbs to their voters during burials, weddings and other social ceremonies in the respective constituencies.
It is then little wonder that in most cases, the most urgent issue for any new parliament is a discussion concerning salary increment and enhancement of other allowances and renumerations for the honorable members. Subsequently, an honorable member of parliament spends their entire term of office minding less about the actual job that they should be doing, but more on how to regain the money they spent and how to retain their seat during the next elections.
Therefore, when a member of parliament turns up late and shortly falls asleep during a parliamentary session, it is not that they spent the previous day and night consulting and researching on the day’s motions or supervising some government project in their constituency.
More often, they will have spent the previous night and day visiting sick members of their community, attending burials, weddings and sometimes visiting to console a voter whose only cow died due to some sudden disease.
Failure to return to the constituency when there is a major social event without enough explanation and delegation usually implies that the honorable member does not intend to seek re-election. Remember, for all the social events attended, the honorable member must hand out cash donations or make a pledge and state when they will send the money.
Therefore, legislators who manage to turn up for a parliamentary session are to be lauded regardless of whether they turn up late, sleep during parliamentary proceedings or simply attend passively without paying attention to proceedings.
Depending on the level of threat by the potential competitors, several of the MPs cannot simply make it to parliament when they should but would rather spend more time with their voters. This is because at the end of their tenure, most are certain that they are not going to be judged - at least by their voters - on the basis of how many parliamentary sessions they attended, or how many crucial views they raised (if any) during parliamentary proceedings.
They are certain that their performance will be based on how many burials and weddings and other fundraising events they attended, or how many sick people they visited, how much money they gave back to the community and how often they were generally seen in the community.
With such confusions regarding the role and expectations from a legislator, any hope for effective representation of views and interests in national politics equates to a two-year-old toddler who anxiously plans to drive their parent’s car by using the steering wheel of a toy car.
The writer is a social worker in Alberta, Canada.