Ugandans vote in polls with no parties: After the first election in 14 years, a new assembly is likely to back President Museveni's constitution, writes Richard Dowden, Africa Editor

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Ugandans vote today in the country's first election for 14 years, but political parties are banned from taking part and candidates must stand as individuals. The four main political parties, like other 'interest groups', are allowed to nominate two members each to the 288-member assembly.

The electoral law bans candidates from standing on 'sectarian grounds such as religion, tribe or political party', and they are only allowed to hold meetings organised by the electoral commission.

President Yoweri Museveni, whose National Resistance Army fought its way to power in 1986, had blamed the country's political problems on party politics. He suspended the parties while co-opting their leading members into his broad-based administration. Despite two active rebel movements, a severe drought in the north-east and chaos in three of its five neighbours, Uganda is a success story, compared with many other African countries and with its own appalling past.

The 1980 election, now widely regarded as fraudulent, resulted in the return of Milton Obote, Uganda's first prime minister and president from 1966-71. The country was plunged into a barbarous civil war which exceeded any atrocities committed during Idi Amin's rule from 1971 to 1979.

A constitutional committee, hand-picked but broadly based, last year proposed a new constitution which suggested that the political parties remain suspended for another five years and proposed a presidential election. The Constituent Assembly elected today will debate this draft for between four and seven months. Changes to it must secure a two-thirds majority of the assembly and proposals which receive between a half and two-thirds will be regarded as 'contentious issues' and put to a national referendum. They can be secured by a simple majority.

The 214 elected members will be joined by 64 members appointed by groups such as trade unions, women's and youth organisations - and two each from the four main political parties. The President can nominate a further 10 members.

There is plenty of ammunition here for Mr Museveni's enemies to accuse him of manipulating the election structure to keep himself in power. There is certainly little chance of the assembly overturning the draft constitution which will allow him to stand for two five-year terms as president. Under a multi- party system Mr Museveni would be vulnerable. He comes from a small ethnic group and, if the political parties split along tribal lines, he would almost certainly lose despite his personal popularity especially in the south and west of the country. He has argued that multi-party democracy is inappropriate for Africa because a pre-industrial country splits vertically - along rigid tribal or ethnic lines. Multi-party democracy he says is designed for industrial societies which divide along more fluid and dynamic class divisions.

About 85 per cent of Ugandans eligible to vote have registered; there are 1,500 candidates. The suspension of political parties means they are not allowed to hold rallies or canvass support but they are allowed to exist and have offices, officers and newspapers.

At the election meetings candidates have made no secret of their support for one or other of the political parties or for multi-party democracy in general. The meetings have been lively. There has been a thorough public education and information campaign on television, radio and in the press urging people to vote and reminding them that their vote is secret. One slogan is: 'Are you only worth a beer?' - discouraging people from giving their votes to a candidate who plies them with drink. The candidates are obliged to answer questions put from the crowd and despite the rule that 'no candidate is expected to use abusive or insulting language against another candidate', there have been some fierce exchanges. One woman coming away from a meeting in Kampala last week said: 'I will vote for the one I trust, the one who will make good laws because laws will be the backbone of our country.'

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