Understanding 'Age Limit' Numbers in Parliament

Political observers are back to the numbers game, looking at the composition of Parliament and the stance taken by some NRM legislators to lead the move against removing the presidential age limits.

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As Parliament meets today to start the process of removing the presidential age limits from the constitution, the ruling NRM party is counting on its numbers in the House to pull this through.

Igara West MP Raphael Magyezi is expected to move a motion seeking to table a private member's bill to amend Article 102(b) of the constitution to remove age limits.

Under the current law, one can only be a presidential candidate if they are at least 35 years of age and not above 75. If left as it is, even President Yoweri Museveni would not be eligible to contest for the presidency in 2021 when Ugandans return to the polls. Museveni, who has ruled Uganda for more than 30 years, will hit the limit in 2019, more than a year before the general elections.

As the focus turns to Article 102(b), many especially members of the opposition see Magyezi's bill as a move by NRM to open a window for President Museveni to extend his rule, this time by doing away with the age limits after removing the clause on two-term limits in 2005.

Both cabinet and caucus adopted the proposal to support Magyezi's motion, a move that evokes memories of 12 years ago when the 7th Parliament voted to amend Article 105 of the constitution to remove the two-term limit for the president. Some 220 MPs voted in favour of the removal, 50 rejected the proposal, while Jacob Oulanyah, the then chairperson of the Parliamentary committee on legal affairs and Colonel Fred Bogere, one of the 10 army representatives, abstained from the voting. Bogere declined to serve in the Eighth Parliament while Oulanyah is in his second term as deputy speaker of Parliament.

Political observers are back to the numbers game, looking at the composition of Parliament and the stance taken by some NRM legislators to lead the move against removing the presidential age limits. There appears to be a sense of disquiet within the ruling party caucus in Parliament as Members continue to defy official positions. So far, MPs Monica Amoding for Kumi district, Theodore Ssekikubo for Lwemiyaga County, Barnabas Tinkasiimire for Buyaga West, Alex Ruhunda of Fort Portal Municipality and Sylvia Rwabwogo, the Kabarole Woman MP among others have openly spoken against the removal of age limits.

The 10th Parliament has a total of 431 legislators, without considering the 18 ex-officio members who are not allowed to vote. Six more MPs will join the House soon from the newly created districts of Bunyagabu, Butebo, Kyotera, Namisindwa, Pakwach and Rukiga. Of these, only one is from the opposition, after the Democratic Party candidate won the Kyotera Woman parliamentary seat.

This will bring the total number of MPs mandated to vote to 447.This implies the proponents of bill, once tabled, would need at least 298 votes in favour to gain the two thirds required for the bill to be passed by Parliament.

With 303 MPs, NRM appears comfortable in its perch as far as the numbers are concerned. On paper, this is reinforced by the fact that some of the 66 Independent MPs lean towards the ruling party.

Of the 66 Independent MPs, 48 are NRM members who lost in the party primaries and opted to stand as Independent candidates.

This would imply the opposition has work to do to boost its numbers currently standing at 56 MPs. These include 36 from the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), 14 from DP, and 6 from the Uganda People's Congress (UPC). To cause an upset during voting, the opposition would need to convince Independent MPs to vote as a block, and hope that the number of NRM MPs opposed to the age limit removal continues to grow.

Reagan Wamajji, a Programme Associate at Centre for Policy Analysis, notes that the proponents of the amendment could get the two thirds, looking at the number of NRM MPs. He counts on the Independents leaning towards NRM and the question of money, a general belief that the ruling party has access to state resources to push her positions in parliament.

In 2005, it emerged that MPs were given five million shillings to vote in favour of term limits removal, something Wamajji says could be repeated this time.

Wamajji, also a content producer with Parliament Watch, however, notes that some MPs will have to choose between their principles and money. But he is quick to add that, looking at the past trends of the Public Order Management Act, passed in 2013, the Public Finance Management Act 2015 and how some members expressed opposition but later changed their mind, the amendment is still NRM's to lose.

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In another scenario, Wamajji says the number of MPs opposed to the lifting of age limits could grow with the demand by voters to have their MPs come straight growing. This, he says could be reinforced by the fact that a number of influential Ugandan leaders and elders have spoken against the lifting. Several religious and civil society leaders have spoken against the proposed amendment, with the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda suggesting a referendum on the matter.

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Ruth Nankabirwa, the NRM Chief Whip and one of the key proponents of the age limit removal, says that the trend of voting that happened in the caucus, where of the 296 Members, only seven voted against while two MPs abstained, the ruling party has better chance than its opponents to push through the amendment.

She says NRM is assured of votes of its members and is now counting on votes from Independence leaning MPs, but also courting some opposition.

"When you look at the numbers now, NRM stands a higher chance, and we have made sure we don't use any form of force, but persuade members on outside," she said.

Asked if they think the proposal will go through, Nankabirwa stated that so far they meet the numbers of the MPs required to form the two thirds majority.

Kassanda South MP Simeo Nsubuga, another proponent of the proposal, notes that looking at the previous patterns of voting, since it is by show of hands, most MPs are going to vote in favour of the amendment. He states that they count their numbers among the Independent MPs as well.