KAMPALA, 27 July (IRIN) - A national referendum is to take place in Uganda on Thursday to decide whether to retain a "no party" system of government or revert to multi-party politics, but critics say the plebiscite is a waste of time.
President Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Movement barred political parties from operating in Uganda when it seized power 19 years ago.
Museveni decided the country would be ruled under the "movement" or "no party" system of government. Since then, political parties have only been allowed to maintain a minimum presence through national offices.
The president blames multiparty politics for the decades of oppression Ugandans suffered under the East African country's past rulers, whom he has accused of dividing the population along ethnic and religious lines.
However, Wafula Oguttu, spokesman for the newly formed opposition political party, Forum for Democratic Change, argues that it was individuals, not parties, which had caused wars in Uganda.
"We have had wars in various regions of the country under Museveni's rule that was devoid of party politics, therefore it is wrong to suggest that parties caused trouble in Uganda," Oguttu said.
Oguttu said the country still suffered bad governance. "Key sectors of the economy are headed by people from the president's home area.
"We have got the most sectarian regime in the history of the country in spite the fact that there are no parties," he added.
Museveni has since softened his stance on political parties, and in the run up to Thursday's referendum was urging all Movement supporters to vote for the re-introduction of multiparty politics.
The referendum question is: "Do you agree to open up political space to allow those who wish to join different organisations/parties to do so to compete for political power?"
Museveni launched his "Yes" campaign on 12 July, and has traversed the country to drum up support for it.
He said his decision to support political pluralism was intended to rid the Movement of those not totally dedicated to it, and to make it more cohesive.
"Let us rid ourselves of the uncommitted. Then we [the Movement] shall be able to consolidate ourselves," the president said.
His opponents, who have long called for the re-introduction of parties, but who have called a boycott of the referendum, said there could never be any justification for putting to a vote the fundamental right of association and assembly.
"This is a right," Oguttu told IRIN. "I cannot participate in a façade."
On Wednesday, the main parties - under the so-called G-6 grouping of six main parties - were in the country's highest court, the Supreme Court, trying to secure an injunction on the plebiscite, having lost an earlier effort in the lower court.
"We are at the Supreme Court now. We want the court to stay the exercise (referendum) until the appeal we lodged against this referendum is heard," one of the group's attorneys, Elias Lukwago, told IRIN at the court.
Opposition leaders have accused Museveni of supporting a return to multiparty politics so he can extend his stay in power.
Currently, a president can only serve two five-year terms, but parliament voted in July to scrap this provision, technically allowing Museveni to run again when his term expires in March 2006.
Museveni won the last two presidential elections, in 1996 and 2001.
The president has not declared his intention to stand for a third term, but while addressing a rally in the eastern town of Soroti recently, he spoke of what he called the danger of entrusting Uganda's leadership to "inexperienced persons".
"Running a country is not easy," he said. "It is like driving a trailer on a bad road. You cannot give it to people who are learning to drive or those whose driving permits have been cancelled."
Critics say many of Uganda's 8.5 million voters do not fully understand the lengthy referendum question.
"The referendum question is a mouthful, meaningless and done in bad faith," Mwambusya Ndebesa, a lecturer at Makerere University, said.
The referendum process began late, he added, and very little voter education had taken place.
Ndebesa said in a country where illiteracy levels remained high, the very long referendum question had only added to the problem.
"I know about the referendum but I don't know the question being asked. I don't find it useful and I will not vote," Joel Mugume, a boda-boda (motorbike taxi) said.
Jabweli Okello, the spokesman of the Uganda Electoral Commission, which is overseeing the process, told IRIN the commission had done what it could, "but nothing will ever be enough".
Barely a week to the referendum, many people who spoke to IRIN in an internally displaced persons' camp in the country's war-torn north expressed little knowledge about the referendum and said they were more concerned with their security and the problems bedevilling their lives.
The chairman of the northern district of Gulu, Walter Ochora, admitted low awareness about the referendum, but said this week, politicians in the district had been educating people about the plebiscite.
Museveni has won international praise for leading a successful fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Uganda, and for revamping the country's economy.
He has also restored stability to most regions of the once strife-torn country.
Rebuilding a shattered economy, which now has a steady annual average growth rate of about six percent, he has often been held up as a successful African leader by global financial institutions.
However, the failure to end the war in northern Uganda, in which the rebel Lord's Resistance Army continues to terrorise people, remains a blot on Museveni's political profile, James Magala, a researcher at Makerere University, said.
Diplomats say Museveni bowed to donor pressure to allow a return to full political party activity, a claim the president denies.
A western diplomat in Kampala said on Monday the international community, which was pushing for party politics elsewhere on the continent, had only tolerated Uganda's political posture to allow recovery in a country that was a pariah state for years.
The British and Norwegian governments have already withheld some aid to the country, citing governance issues and the slow pace of the democratisation process.
According to western analysts, the quest by Museveni to continue as president will rock Uganda's recovery boat and propel it to the troubled waters of the past.
Former US ambassador to Uganda, Johnnie Carson, said recently: "Charismatic and affable, Museveni is regarded as one of the most influential leaders in Africa. However, his thirst for power and quest for a controversial third presidential term may return Uganda to its dictatorial past."
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