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Limits of internal dissent

By Denis Musinguzi

The latest brand of internal dissent – campaigning against one’s party candidate – is killing parties, and multi-partyism

One of the greatest contributions of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government to Uganda’s democratization was the innovation of the inclusive, broad-based and individual merit political dispensation. The system skillfully created room for free competition and dissent, without compromising one’s membership to the party.

With heated agitation for the opening of political space, a multi-party political system was prematurely adopted following the ill-organised 2000 referendum that lifted the ban on political parties.

This was premature because the political atmosphere then and events since the opening of political space have proved that multi-partyism is still intellectually backward, both as theory and practice, unfortunately even among government technocrats, honorable members of Parliament, and intellectuals, including social and political scientists.

I must note that the opening of political space was not necessarily out of tandem with global democratic practices, since organized political parties in mature democracies constitute a major element of the political system by providing direction for the governing of a political community. Opposition parties play the important role of criticizing government and holding it accountable for its actions. Besides, opposition parties raise public concerns that have not been adequately handled by the government, and hence present themselves as a credible alternative to the government.

However, the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) elections and the on-going by-elections, laid bare the immaturity of our political parties, particularly the dangers of internal dissent in a multiparty political dispensation across all political parties.

By fielding candidates in the EALA, both Democratic Party (DP) and the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) were accused of flouting a resolution of the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) to boycott the elections. The by-elections, particularly in Ishaka, Bushenyi District, and Bukoto South, Rwengo District, which pitted a Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) candidate, Hon. Odo Tayebwa and DP’s Mathias Nsubuga, winner of the Bukoto South election, against the ruling NRM’s candidate including former minister Alintuma Nsambu, further exposed internal weaknesses in the ruling and opposition parties.

In Ishaka, local NRM leaders openly supported and voted for FDC’s Odo Tayebwa, while in the Bukoto South, the NRM’s Buganda Caucus not only rejected the official party candidate, Alintuma Nsambu, but one of them, Hon. Muhammad Nsereko, openly campaigned for the opposition DP candidate, who eventually won. While dissent is allowable at the caucus level, party democracy demands that all members respect the official position, disregard of which is tantamount to disowning and discrediting one’s own party.

Political parties can play their democratic role if they are well organized and their passions tempered with party discipline, including the requirement that legislators must support and vote on party matters in accordance with the official party position. Each party should have an in-built capacity to enforce compliance to party decisions by individual members. This latest form of dissent has not only cost NRM parliamentary seats, it is stunting the party and actively undermining the overall democratic growth and development of Uganda’s political system.

Party indiscipline has fed by weak or non-existent party structures and loyalty to individual party leaders. The parties in Uganda are controlled by small elite groups, with no strong ideological commitment. Opposition parties are pre-occupied with regime change and parliamentary representation, rather than building strong, well-structured, and disciplined political organizations.

Besides, all political parties in Uganda have invariably failed to represent the different interests of voters; as a result they have remained unpopular. No wonder the sense of membership or attachment to political parties, save for personal and oft parochial interests, has declined unabated. Party membership has either stagnated or declined. The public’s negative view of parties continues to grow.

The ruling party NRM is distrusted because it has failed to deliver on its many promises, especially public goods and services. Worse still, NRM has not only failed to fight corruption, but has embarrassedly and unforgivably crafted itself as an instrument of corruption. More often than not, NRM has used its political power to aggregate corrupt benefits for its members. To a maturing polity, the failure to hold free and fair elections, continuous use of violence, and the waging of dirty and unfair campaigns against opponents, have all undermined the NRM.

Unfortunately, the emergence of interest groups and social movements such as the Activists for Change (A4C), which metamorphosed into For God and My Country (4GC), as popular vehicles of citizen involvement in political life, tend to undermine rather than strengthen the role of mainstream political parties. It is not surprising that FDC faithfuls have expressed concern that the FDC leader, Dr. Kiiza Besigye, has abandoned the party in favor of A4C, now 4GC, which he allegedly founded to maintain his political relevance as he prepares to retire from the helm of Uganda’s main opposition party.

In the face of these shortcomings, all political parties must make an honest internal political audit, strengthen their internal democracy and enforce discipline among members. Short of this, the benefits of a multiparty dispensation will remain a pipe dream.

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