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By-election nightmare

By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi

Can the opposition capitalise on recent wins to defeat Museveni?

With five wins out of the six parliamentary by-elections held so far this term, opposition parties must wish they don’t wake up from this dream anytime soon. They must also wish more seats were up for by-election.

This has people like NRM’s Agnes Nabirye worried. She will likely face a by-election soon against FDC’s Maureen Kyalya Walube.

“I am reaching out to voters and I am confident I will be returned,” Nabirye told The Independent by telephone, adding that she expects “massive” support from her NRM party.

NRM is expected to roll out the big guns when the Jinja campaigns kick off, if only to stem the free-fall of losses that have demoralised members.

In addition to five by-elections, NRM also lost the Rubaga North after court ruled that independent candidate Moses Kasibante’s win, earlier declared by the Electoral Commission, was illegally overturned in favour of NRM deputy Treasurer Katongole Singh.

Only former Vice President Prof. Gilbert Bukenya has managed to retain his Busiro North seat as an NRM MP. But many say that was in spite, not because of NRM. He never sought the party’s support during campaigns and his was the only by-election campaign President Yoweri Museveni, the party’s chief campaigner, did not grace.

Bukenya was thought to have fallen out with NRM’s leadership, especially after spending a week on remand in Luzira Prison on corruption accusations that some interpreted as an extension of a presidential succession struggle.

String of losses

In Jinja, FDC’s Paul Mwiru trounced NRM’s Igeme Nabeta and in Bushenyi Municipality, FDC’s Oddo Tayebwa defeated NRM’s Nasser Basajjabalaba in what is probably the biggest indication yet that NRM’s firm hold on western Uganda can be challenged.

DP has gained three seats from by-elections so far, with youth winger Brenda Nabukenya deposing NRM’s Rebecca Nalwanga from the NRM stronghold of Luweero and Muhammad Kawuma beating off NRM’s Patience Mubangizi to retain Entebbe Municipality. Nsubuga, the party’s secretary general, did well to regain Bukoto South, which he had lost to NRM’s Hajj Muyanja Mbabaali in 2011.

Due to by-elections, DP representatives in Parliament have grown by two to 14. FDC had gained two seats to raise its tally to 36, but the annulment of opposition Chief Whip Winnie Kiiza’s election as Kasese woman MP pegged the party back by a seat. Kiiza faces a tough by-election, as observers expect it to epitomise the fight for supremacy in Kasese between NRM and FDC. Independents have also increased by one to 44. But despite the losing five out of 263 seats, NRM maintains a commanding lead.

A stronger opposition?

Given time, it appears, the opposition will dominate Parliament and probably defeat Museveni in the next election. But it doesn’t necessarily work that way, according to two American professors.

Alan Abramowitz and Norman Ornstein, writing in The Washington Post, made observations about the 2010 American midterm elections which may be relevant to the by-elections in Uganda.

“Midterm elections,” they wrote, “are largely determined by short-term factors, including the popularity of the president and the state of the economy. As a result, they rarely indicate anything about longer-term trends, and they have no value in predicting the results of the subsequent presidential and [parliamentary] elections.”

It may be true that the dip in the economy, for example, could be one of the reasons NRM parliamentary candidates are losing. Makerere University’s political scientist Prof. Sallie Simba says, however, that these conditions will not last, at least in the minds of voters. “Towards the 2016 election,” he says, “government policy will increasingly focus on winning re-election and the people could start viewing the government more favourably.”

In fact, Alan Abramowitz and Norman Ornstein note that former US presidents whose parties suffered major midterm losses, such as Harry Truman in 1946, Ronald Reagan in 1982 and Bill Clinton in 1994, went on to win re-election easily two years later.  Dr. Yasin Olum, another Makerere University political science don, has more explanations for the success of the opposition in by-elections. Olum notes that due to focus on a single constituency at a time, the opposition is not overstretched as is the case in general elections and they can easily mobilise against rigging.

In the Jinja Municipality by-election which FDC’s Mwiru won, for example, FDC bigwigs Muntu, Nandala Mafabi, Salaam Musumba and others pitched camp in the constituency, ready to confront the police and whoever was suspected of rigging. In Bukoto South, Entebbe and Luweero, several DP vigilantes did the same and their candidates won.

Political historian Mwambutsya Ndebesa sees another possible explanation for NRM’s losses – a tendency towards the Demonstration Effect. He predicts that NRM is bound to lose more by-elections since voters have seen NRM candidates lose elsewhere despite Museveni’s involvement. “Voters may feel good to defy the president,” Ndebesa argues.

After all, Simba adds, voters know that unlike the president who they can’t easily remove using the ballot, the votes they cast for opposition parliamentary candidates in many cases actually count.

But, Ndebesa says, further study is needed about the rationality of voters. The Bukoto South by-election, he says, “was decided” by the Kabaka issue, “but why haven’t the Baganda been able to vote against Museveni despite accusing him of working against their Kabaka?”

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