After what they have been through, Ugandans "deserve the most perfect government in the world," a Commonwealth official monitoring last week's chaotic elections remarked. But, he added grimly, "they will not get it."

The general election brought home starkly the tragedy of Uganda: The democratic spirit lives on in the people despite the lack of elections for 18 years and the horrors of dictator Idi Amin. Unfortunately, it does not seem to burn so brightly in their leaders, chosen either by coup or ballot.

The Commonwealth, an organization of Britain and its former colonies which observe the elections and gave them limited approval, put the matter poignantly in its preliminary assessment of the polling.

The degree to which the election on Wednesday and Thursday succeeded, the report said, "must primarily be attributed to the people of Uganda. The remarkably high turnout of voters, their enthusiastic but orderly behavior, and their palpable wish to be masters of their destiny constitute a great act of affirmation in the democratic process."

As they stood patiently in long lines to cast their ballots, often waiting up to 12 hours, voter after voter voiced the same hope that the election would mark a turning point for the country away from the violence and toward peace and stability -- something an entire generation of Ugandans has never experienced.

Instead they got a tainted election, fraught with charges of fraud, which returned Milton Obote to the presidency in a manner that hardly bodes well for the future of the country.

The basic complaint is that the election was unduly influenced by the military commission which rules the country and predominantly backs Obote's Uganda People's Congress. As a result, the rival Democratic Party charged, election officials favored the Congress, disqualified Democratic candidates in 17 of the 126 constituencies, gerrymandered districts, committed registration irregularities, caused massive delays in voting and altered the results.

The Commonwealth, reflecting a "feeling of unease," echoed many of the complaints and presented legal evidence in the case of some disqualified candidates.

The government, however, was "thinking ahead" on that score, as one diplomat put it. A new chief justice and appellate court justice, presumed to favor Obote's party, were appointed virtually on election eve.

Besides, when has a court thrown out a government?

The most serious complaint, however, arose after the Commonwealth's preliminary report was issued when Paulo Muwanga, the Ugandan interim ruler who turned over power to Obote today, took sole control of the election and banned publication of results for a day. This followed persistent reports that the Democrats were winning, based on returns from party agents and seemingly verified by the gloomy mood in the People's Congress office.

Almost 24 hours later, when Muwanga relented under foreign pressure and allowed the first results to be announced, the Obote's Congress party was on top.

It is difficult to explain why Muwanga took such an action unless he thought his friend Obote was losing. The secretary of the election commission was not available for comment after the election, claiming he was indisposed.

Asked about reports from the commission on Thursday that the Democrats had won a majority, an official said, "I have no answer to that one." Reflecting the nervousness of the commission, he declined to give his name. This was uncharacteristic of most Ugandans who are often willing to be identified with critical statements, surprisingly in light of the bloodshed of the last decade.

It is possible, of course, that Obote's majority is a true reflection of the count. But after all the chicanery before, during and after the vote, there are few Ugandans other than his supporters who are likely to believe it. t

Thus, this lush, tropical country of enormous human potential is unlikely to gain the main benefit of the election -- a renewal of trust between the people and their government. In the past, such distrust has often found expression at the end of a gun barrel.

Although prolonged civil strife is always a possibility in Uganda, there are other, less direct forces of opposition which could hamper the country's prospects for recovery.

A former journalist, jailed under Amin, commented: "If the people don't support the government, they will simply stop working.

"We're self-reliant. We can grow enough food to live, so we will just ignore the government."