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Why NRM should fear Mbabazi

By Haggai Matsiko

When on Aug.14 Research World International released an opinion poll showing that majority or 55 percent of the respondents would vote President Yoweri Museveni if elections were held, many were quick to dismiss it.  Patrick Wakida, RWI’s executive director says that this shows two things—that people do not understand research and that they need research. What Wakida did not say is that the polls he has conducted in the past that have been questioned have turned out to be proper assessments of the political environment.

One of RWI most accurate polls was the October 2012 Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) presidential poll. When asked which candidate they would vote for if elections were held then, 49 percent mention Mugisha Muntu, 25 percent Nandala Mafabi and 3 percent Godfrey Ekanya. In the actual elections that November, Muntu emerged the winner followed by Nandala and then Ekanya.

Shortly before the 2011 elections, a poll by RWI showed that 64 percent of the respondents would vote Museveni and 22 percent Besigye.

RWI’s poll was slightly different from the November 18 and December 6, 2010 by Afrobarometer, which gave Museveni 66 percent, Kizza Besigye 12 percent, Mao 3 percent, Otunnu 3 percent, Uganda Federal Alliance’s Beti Kamya 1 percent and independent candidate Samuel Lubega, PPP candidate Jaberi Bidandi-Ssali, and PDP candidate Abed Bwanika would all get 0 percent. The second poll by the same organisation, carried out between Jan. 20 and 30, gave Museveni 65 percent compared to 15 percent for his closest challenger, Besigye.

When the actual results were announced, President Museveni had 68 percent, Besigye 27 percent. Some observers point to these polls as evidence that polls need to be taken seriously.

They note that RWI’s fresh poll is the latest window into how President Museveni could lose a significant block of his supporters to his erstwhile ally, former Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi in the 2016 elections.

The RWI poll, carried out between July 13—26, shows that 55 percent of the respondents would vote President Museveni, 27 percent would vote his three-time challenger Kiiza Besigye and 13 percent, former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi.

Only two percent would vote Democratic Party’s (DP) Norbert Mao, Mugisha Muntu, Jimmy Akena and Gilbert Bukenya would all get one percent each, Olara Otunnu 0.4 percent and Venansius Baryamureeba 0.1 percent.

Some pundits say given Mbabazi’s performance in the RWI poll, which comes before he even hits the road for his planned consultations and official campaigns, he has potential to even cause a re-run. Following the announcement of the poll results, Mbabazi on Aug.17 picked nomination forms from the Electoral Commission signaling that he is set to contest as he has announced.

Wakida explained that like all opinion polls, the results are just a snapshot of opinion at a particular point in time. There are chances a lot could change between now and February 2016 when the polls will be carried out.

In an interesting tit-bit based on the current poll information, Museveni would perform worse in a two-way race between him an Mbabazi than he would against Besigye. The poll shows that in a contest of two, Museveni would get 57 percent against Besigye who would get 28 percent. But against Mbabazi, Museveni’s tally would drop four percentage points to 54 percent although Mbabazi would get fewer votes at 22 percent. This appears to suggest that Mbabazi’s votes will likely eat into Museveni’s.

On the question of whether Mbabazi can make a good single candidate for a joint opposition to Museveni, he performs well ahead of Gen. Mugisha Muntu, the president of the largest opposition party, FDC. On the choice of a single candidate, 51 percent said they would vote Besigye as the single opposition candidate, 24 would vote Mbabazi and 5 percent Muntu.

Prof. Morris Ogenga Latigo, the former Leader of Opposition, like many analysts, told The Independent that Museveni’s support base has reduced because of Mbabazi.

“It is clear from the poll that the 13 percent left Museveni and went with Mbabazi. You have this coming before the primaries, where those that will not agree with the outcomes, are going to want to break away and possibly also identify with Mbabazi,” Latigo said.

Latigo’s observation is based on subtracting Mbabazi’s 13 percent from the 68 percent that President Museveni got in the 2011 elections. That gives exactly 55 percent. The poll, analysts note, shows that Mbabazi’s 13 percent gain is Museveni’s 13 percent loss.

Basing on the poll results, observers claim that all Mbabazi needs to do to force a re-run is to grow his 13 percent by 5 or 6 percentage points. If all this comes from Museveni’s base, the incumbent would be left with 50 or 49 percent. The results could be better or worse because the RWI poll has a +/-3% margin of error at a 97% confidence level.

The Museveni camp has been acting like it has already considered the possibility of Mbabazi emerging as a strong contender in 2016 and clawing away some support from Museveni. They have been acting determinedly to frustrate his candidature. When Mbabazi announced his candidature in a late night YouTube video on June 15, word went round that he was forced to act quickly to scuttle a plan to arrest him. It is generally thought that being a presidential candidate offers some immunity from being harassed with impunity. Three times Museveni challenger, Kizza Besigye, employed the same ploy in his first run.

The determination by the Museveni camp to give Mbabazi a tough time was again exposed when he sought to embark on countrywide consultations on July 09.  Police blocked him from attending his first meeting in Mbale and detained him the whole day purportedly because he had not sought clearance from `his party’, the NRM. Mbabazi once again was forced to lie low until July 31 when he announced that he would not participate in the ruling party primaries but would contest as a presidential candidate anyway.

Mbabazi said his decision followed maneuvers intended by the top leadership of the ruling party, which he co-founded and until December last year served as Secretary General, “to obstruct my intentions completely”.

When Mbabazi picked nomination forms to run as independent candidate, the NRM secretariat once again issued threats against him, including that he would be blocked through the courts.

But even with this suppression, Mbabazi remains popular. His attractiveness, especially within the NRM, partially stems from a view revealed by the RWI poll that the majority of the ruling party supporters want its leadership changed. Mbabazi is the preferred replacement for Museveni as party chairman. Others include Museveni’s wife and Minister for Karamoja, Janet Museveni, Speaker of Parliament Rebbeca Kadaga, and Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda.

However, there are those who claim that Mbabazi’s performance is disappointing. They claim that having dominated press reports since last year, Mbabazi should not have posted just a mere 13 percent. Given that the poll has a -+3 error margin, Mbabazi’s 13 percent is easily 10 percent. It is disappointing, they add, that even if you add Mbabazi’s percentage to that of Besigye, you still remain with 40 percent, which is 15 percentage points below Museveni’s 55 percent.

The Besigye problem

Asked whether Mbabazi is the right person for presidency, only 18 percent of the respondents said yes, and 49 said no. On this, as in other areas of approval rating by voters, Besigye is ahead of Mbabazi which appears to be another problem for the NRM.

Besigye got 26 percent of the vote in the previous elections. Measured against that, this poll, therefore, shows that he would make a one percentage point gain. It also shows he has a core unshakable base that can only grow.

It’s noteworthy that this poll was conducted when Besigye was on the campaign trail across the country in a contest with his successor Muntu over who should be FDC’s presidential flag-bearer. Besigye’s decision to contest again has not gone down well with some senior party leaders who accuse reneging on his promise not to contest again, but the poll shows that Besigye is the favourite FDC flag-bearer.

But the poll also reveals something about Besigye, which his critics have been pointing at—the fact that he is yet to grow his support base from the slightly over 2 million voters. Muntu’s supporters say their candidate can do better than this. But with this poll, it shows Muntu has an uphill task.

Muntu’s avowed supporters, like Latigo have chosen to downplay Muntu’s low appeal among voters. Latigo told The Independent that Muntu’s performance is not necessarily a good indicator of how he would set to perform in the elections.

Latigo says although, like Besigye, Muntu is busy combing the countryside for votes, the low awareness and approval rating among voters is part of a strategy.

“What Muntu is doing now is not geared towards visibility,” Latigo said, “Muntu has been concentrating on building party structures such that when he wins and becomes the flag bearer, he is not just Muntu; he is the FDC candidate.”

Messach Nuwabaine, an FDC delegate from Bushenyi, also told The Independent that what the poll shows is that increasingly Ugandans want a new face on the ballot paper.

“But I don’t see much in asking Ugandans who between Museveni, Besigye and Mbabazi is most known to them,” Nuwabaine said, “it is clear, all Ugandans know Museveni, the process to becoming a president has to make you known to all Ugandans. And being popular has nothing to do with good deeds, you can be known for bad deeds, so you cannot base on that to say that just because so and so is more known, then he is going to win in elections.”

Wakida, RWI’s director of social and public research, says some of these responses show that Ugandans do not understand research but also that there is a willingness to understand research.

But even those who understand research have tended to question opinion polls.

Scholar Julius Kiiza, in his paper, Opinion Polls in the Spotlight: An Exercise in Deception? Opinion Polling in a Semi-Authoritarian African Polity, published in the book, Elections in a hybrid regime, notes that in the context of semi-authoritarian rule in Uganda, opinion polls are unreliable.

Kiiza’s paper is based on two Afrobarometer polls, one of which was carried out between Nov. 18 and Dec. 6 2010 and another between Jan. 20—28. 2011.

Kiiza writes that while the methodology used to arrive at the poll result was scientifically reasonable with a margin of sampling error of -+2.5 percent at a 95 percent confidence level, the research period was too short.

The limited time period becomes more serious in the light of the second problem, that is, decontextualized opinion polling, Kiiza writes.

“I argue that in Uganda, dissenting voices are repressed or discouraged, either through physical repression or internalized fear, due to the perceived ubiquitous presence of state intelligence networks at the national, institutional and community levels, or through socio-economic leverages that preferentially reward the allies’ regime,” Kiiza writes, “Without this context-specific knowledge, opinion polling becomes an exercise in deception.”

In the December poll, 65 percent of the respondents expressed liking for the NRM, 27 percent associated with FDC. Afrobarometer stated that political finance did not significantly improve Museveni’s reelection. It showed instead that Museveni’s reelection was due to uninspiring opposition slate and his government’s good economic management credentials.

Kiiza dismissed these grounds. He notes that while the poll’s hypothesis over the uninspiring opposition slate pointed to the persistent weaknesses of opposition parties in terms of political party ideology, internal democracy, and cohesion, the real issue is that the opposition is uninspiring because President Museveni’s government is in the habit of stifling opposition politics.

Kiiza also writes that opinion polls like the media that happily report them, are in the business of manufacturing consent to promote vested political, economic or even ideological interests. He adds that such results, in countries characterized by patronage and semi-authoritarian politics, have the effect of making voters vote for the candidate who is presented as the likely winner or causing supporters of a candidate shown to be losing, lose morale.

Whether one accepts or rejects the polling results, it is clear that if Mbabazi, Besigye, and Muntu craft a Special Purpose Vehicle against Museveni, they can potentially inflict damage. Having a joint candidate backed by all three in one option that could work for voters.  Asked whether they would vote a single opposition presidential candidate, 67 percent said yes. This is good news for The Democratic Alliance (TDA), an alliance that seeks to defeat President Museveni and his ruling party by fielding single opposition candidates.

Museveni support reducing

This position is buttressed by the sense, even in NRM, that Museveni has over-stayed in power and is determined to cling on even if support for him is waning.

UP to 30 percent of voters say they want Museveni to retire before the 2016 elections, 18 percent after the 2016 elections, 19 percent when he decides and 10 percent want him to rule for life.

The poll also showed that majority of Ugandans feel that President Museveni is keen on clinging onto power. Only 33 percent of the respondents said they expected elections to be free and fair and 32 percent said they expected them not to be free and fair.

Up to 61 percent of the respondents do not believe he can hand over power if he is defeated in an election and 45 percent do not believe Uganda can change presidents peacefully through an election. Only 39 percent said Uganda can have a peaceful transition.

Majority of the respondents or 45 percent of the respondents, however, said they do not trust the electoral commission. Latigo told The Independent that in a country where the opposition is uniting and the ruling party seemingly in disarray, winning margins are likely to thin and that in such a situation, the Electoral Commission needs to be trusted.

“For the electoral commission, that number shows that they need to stop and think,” Latigo said, “But they (Electoral Commission) are just being defensive.”

The Uganda police and Bank of Uganda are also highly mistrusted in regards to their roles during elections.

Wakida says that the poll also shows that party loyalty is waning. He points out that RWI’s June 2010 poll showed that 73 percent of the respondents felt close to a political party. 76.4 percent of the respondents said they were close to NRM, 15 percent close to FDC. In the same poll, 61 percent of the respondents said they would vote Museveni and 15 percent for Besigye.

In the latest poll, 61 percent said they are members of a political party. Of the 61 percent, 82 percent said they belong to NRM, 13 percent to FDC and 1 percent to DP.

This, according to Wakida, reveals that NRM’s numbers have dropped contrary to the NRM party’s claim that they have registered 11 million members. He reels of a series of numbers to make his point.

According to Wakida, the calculation starts with the EC’s roll of 15 million voters. Then, he says, if 61 percent of these say they belong to apolitical, it translates into about 9 million voters. Finally, if 82 percent of this 9 million say they belong to the NRM party, it translates into the party having about 7.3 million members or about 50.2 percent of the 15 million eligible voters. “50.2 percent of Uganda’s 15 million voters is about 7.5 million voters,” Wakida says, “how can the NRM claim to have registered 11 million, from where?”

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