Activists from the Jobless Brotherhood have repeatedly smuggled piglets into the Ugandan parliament. The animals are daubed in yellow and occasionally blue paint, the colors of the ruling and main opposition parties, and wear signs reading, “M-Pigs.” “These MPs are eating us alive,” one activist commented, adding, “These are national M-Pigs who are sitting in that house.”
Claiming to represent the millions of unemployed youth in Uganda, the activists denounce disinterested and corrupt MPs. More generally, confidence in parliament as a representative institution is consistently low in Uganda and neighboring countries. The most recent Ugandan elections, marred by “unprecedented” violence and rigging, did nothing to restore that low confidence.
How then, if at all, might MPs become more responsive to popular interests? How might they act less like M-Pigs? Much recent academic research and donor spending in Africa and elsewhere has focused on electoral incentives, on how more competitive elections could improve MPs’ accountability to the majority of poorer voters. The assumption is that if elections become more genuinely competitive elected representatives will push for more popular and broadly redistributive policies, improving health services and the like. However, research findings have repeatedly cast doubt on this assumption. While heightened electoral pressures may lead politicians to invest more in localized “constituency service,” there is little evidence that this pressure either directly motivates MPs’ legislative work or drives them to pursue more redistributive policy changes.
So, we are left to ask, do MPs at least occasionally support more popular—and generally more redistributive—policy interventions? And if yes, why? I address these questions in a recent article published in the journal Democratization (pre-prints available here). While not dismissing the significance of electoral pressures, I refocus attention on the largely overlooked role of organized interests in shaping legislative action.
Diverging from the more liberal institutionalist analysis, I draw inspiration from political economy and sociological literature, interested in how the distribution of power across organized interests affects who shapes legislative policy interventions and for whom. According to this literature, a concentration of elite power generally favors more regressive policy. However, there are exceptions to the rule, notably when more “mass-based” membership organizations—for instance, occupational groups like unions, professional associations, and cooperatives—mobilize and pressure MPs.
Building on these insights, I offer a two-part argument, which I adapt to the context of dominant party regimes. First, mass-based groups can help galvanize MPs to demand more redistributive policy. Second, elite divisions, especially within the ruling party, help create the opening for activists to lobby effectively.
I show how this jostling among countervailing interests works through a study of two partially successful legislative interventions in Uganda and one failed attempt in Tanzania. Both countries have a long-ruling dominant party; however, Uganda’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) has historically proved more fractious than Tanzania’s relatively disciplined Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).
In Uganda, factional tensions within the NRM provided additional leverage for outside groups to pressure MPs into adopting their policy agenda. In one case, I show how a coalition of doctors’ unions and NGOs rallied legislators in 2012 to support an increase in medical workers’ salaries and recruitment, which was essential to combat a critical shortage of health workers in the country. In another case, the Uganda National Teachers’ Union (UNATU) between 2011 and 2015 pressured MPs to repeatedly back an increase in teachers’ salaries. The UNATU’s emergence as a political force was itself an achievement after years of government obstruction. It then combined strike action with direct lobbying of parliament to overcome executive resistance on the teachers’ pay issue, which the union and its supporters identified as part of a broader “quality education” agenda.
In both the health and education cases, organizers only won part of their demands. They also suffered a strong executive-led backlash with, for instance, various efforts to “sabotage” UNATU’s internal cohesion, as described by union leaders, some of whom were themselves later co-opted. These outcomes are a reminder that the struggle amongst organized interests is ongoing. Even where less elite, mass-membership organizations exert an influence, they may then suffer the effects of authoritarian counter-pressures.
Still, whereas the factional divisions within the NRM enabled outside groups to achieve some degree of success, stronger disciplining pressures within Tanzania’s CCM prevented a similar breakthrough in the case studied. A network of smallholder farmers was among the groups lobbying the Tanzanian parliament to oppose a 2018 government reform to the cashew export levy. The reform meant that government would stop remitting 65 percent of the funds collected back to farmers through the Cashewnut Board of Tanzania (CBT). The existing system was far from ideal for the majority of poor, smallholder farmers, not least because the CBT had become a target for rent extraction by larger farmers, traders, and politicians. However, the government’s reform risked undermining the existing system—furthering impoverishing the CBT and disrupting the supply of agricultural inputs and marketing services—without offering an alternative to farmers. The farmers were not, however, successful in their effort to reverse the export levy reform after Tanzania’s President John Magufuli threatened ruling party MPs should they fail to toe the government line.
Why does this analysis matter?
One, it can refine how we think about interest representation. Rather than focus on electoral mechanisms as a means to secure accountability from MPs, it emphasizes the importance of understanding the shifting balance of power across organized groups, both non-elite and elite. It draws particular attention to the role of mass-membership organizations, the influence of which is too often overlooked or minimized. This is true in “neo-patrimonial” analyses that long downplayed the potential for popular organizing as well as in the now widespread experimental analyses focused on individual incentives and behavior.
On a more practical note, the analysis suggests a need to rethink support for “democratization,” particularly the focus of international actors whose funding then shapes the agendas of domestic NGOs. Large sums of money go toward improving the quality of elections through, for instance, expensive biometric voter registration. What receives less attention and support—bar a few exceptions—are important societal groups like unions, farmers associations, and cooperatives. These organizations with their roots in both the workplace and wider community, while no panacea, can nevertheless amplify the political influence of generally more marginalized actors. We should see a mainstream discussion of these groups and their potential contribution to advancing popular interests. This includes an appreciation of how they can work through—and help animate—otherwise submissive democratic institutions, such as the legislature, pushing MPs to back more redistributive policies.
Refocusing attention in this way may be all the more important given recent election outcomes. The polls in Uganda were characterized by widespread fraud, while Tanzania’s 2020 elections brought back a de facto one-party state.