By Andrew M. Mwenda
The opposition parties’ agreement to field one presidential candidate come the 2011 elections is possibly a good move. However, previous presidential elections have shown that there is no need for a joint opposition candidate. Indeed, the combined vote of third candidates has always been statistically insignificant as it has never gone above 3.3%. Therefore, the only significance of this alliance is its symbolic value.
Since our first national election in 1961, Uganda has never produced a strong third candidate except for the April 1962 elections. Then Kabaka Yekka won 21 out of 82 contested seats in parliament while UPC won 37 and DP 24. Even then, the KY seats were not contested directly but rather selected by the Lukiiko. The 1980 elections proved that Uganda is always a two party nation as UPM and CP performed poorly.
In 1996, the third candidate Kibirige Mayanja walked away with a paltry 2.1% ‘ the rest of the vote was shared between President Yoweri Museveni and his main challenger, Paul Semogerere. In 2001, the vote was again split between Museveni and his main challenger, Kizza Besigye. The combined vote of all the other candidates (Aggrey Awori, Karuhanga Chapa, Francis Bwengye and Kibirige Mayanja) was 3.3%. This was repeated in 2006; Museveni and Besigye got 96.7% of the total vote while all the other candidates (Abed Bwanika, Sebana Kizito and Miria Obote) shared 3.3%.
From the above, it seems to me that although politicians at the top are often divided during presidential elections, ordinary voters below are always united; one group behind Museveni, the other behind his main challenger. This suggests that presidential elections in Uganda are never about issues; they are always a referendum on Museveni. Therefore voters turn up to either vote for him or against him.
But why does this undermine the strength of third candidates? My feeling is that those hostile to Museveni are always looking for a candidate with the best chance of defeating him. Besigye has represented this hope. The anti-Museveni feeling seems so strong that it even cancels out religious and tribal considerations that may influence voter behavior. Therefore, although both Museveni and Besigye are Protestants and Banyankore, this does not seem to have worked against Besigye.
From this perspective, it is unnecessary for the opposition to field a single presidential candidate. Evidence from previous elections, however, show that the opposition needs to field joint candidates for parliamentary and local council seats ‘ that is where they are weakest. In 2006, for example, the opposition was unable to field candidates in even 50% of all parliamentary and local council offices. Even in areas where the opposition parties have candidates, NRM candidates would win and his first runner-up would be an ‘independent’ candidate who is actually NRM.
In uniting to field a presidential candidate therefore, the opposition is trying to fix a problem where it does not exist and ignoring to fix it where it most hurts them. Yet the opposition faces a paradox; there is widespread discontent largely against Museveni but less so against the NRM. So the vulnerability of the current regime is around Museveni rather than the NRM ‘ and this possibly explains why the opposition is fixated with him.
Yet Museveni holds political power; so he can use the instruments of the state ‘ especially the military and intelligence services ‘ to steal elections. The most stolen part of the election is the presidential one. The theft is always highest in Museveni strongholds. The president’s handlers steal by retail i.e. at the polling station. This is always successful because the opposition has limited presence there; often, security agents plant polling agents on the opposition and then use them to sign distorted tally sheets.
The challenge for the opposition therefore is how to block the president from stealing their votes at the polling station. To do this, they need to build a grassroots movement from below as opposed to a top-down approach they are taking now. Such a movement will need leadership and organization at low levels of local government to ensure they field a candidate for every parliamentary seat and local council election. With such local presence, the opposition can build capacity to monitor polling.
Some people think the opposition in Uganda has weak organizational capacity because of the restrictions that had been placed on political parties by the Movement political system for many years. This is only partly true. Most parties have become active only in the last four years. So they have not yet had time to build a grassroots support and structures to reach as many voters as they can. And given Museveni’s penchant for rigging, it is extraordinary that Besigye came close to beating him in 2006.
Yet I think the biggest constraint Museveni has imposed on opposition parties has been the extensive use of state patronage. Most Ugandans with experience and skills to build an effective opposition movement have actually been integrated into government ‘ as MPs, LC officials, RDCs, security agents and heads of myriad commissions and semi-autonomous government bodies. This way, Museveni has crowded the opposition out of the political market for people with experience and skills to challenge him.
The challenge for the opposition is therefore big but surmountable. For example, the opposition needs to build a recruitment process that eliminates opportunists in favor of high commitment individuals. One way to do this is to require that to be registered as a party member, that person should pay Shs 50,000. Anyone who sacrifices such an amount will have demonstrated strong commitment to the political objectives of the party in question. That is the person the opposition can trust to be a polling agent.
The opposition should avoid using money to recruit support and instead recruit supporters in order to raise money. There is widespread discontent against Museveni; so defeating him is possible. All the opposition needs is an effective organizational structure at the grassroots to block theft of votes. They also need to convince the discontented that Museveni can be defeated and forced out of office by democratic means. This will motivate those who already support them to register and actually turn out to vote.