By Haggai Matsiko
Can the opposition build enough muscle to change its poll-predicted fate in 2016?
It is only 18 months to 2016 when Uganda goes to the next polls. Yet while President Yoweri Museveni, hit the campaign for these polls as early as 2012, not much has been going on for the opposition.
Apart from the `Free and Fair Elections Now’ campaign, which was largely frustrated by security operatives and criticised by among others opposition sympathisers, the only other major activity that has shown the opposition as gaining edge is the Luwero by-election that Brenda Nabukenya of the Democratic Party (DP) swept with a 62% of the vote.
While the victory might be important, it is just a pound of the thick muscle that the opposition needs and should have built by now if it was to stand any chance of trouncing President Museveni in 2016.
Part of that muscle should have involved attracting a sizable block of the middle class, who remain apathetic, according to political observers.
Without that muscle, political experts say, the opposition is set for another loss come 2016.
William Muhumuza, an Associate Professor at Makerere University, who authored `From Fundamental Change to No Change: The National Resistance Movement (NRM) and Democratization in Uganda’, says it’s already “too late for the opposition”.
“The opposition’s internal problems, divisions and lack of a clear agenda of what they want to do still leaves them unattractive,” he told The Independent, “they cannot win an election today even if it is free and fair.”
Muhumuza believes that if the opposition was serious, they would have focussed on making progress immediately after the 2011 elections.
“Even then, they would not defeat the NRM, which is still a very popular party but at least, they would be in a much better position, and they would be consolidating their support base now.”
However, he says, while the Luwero election should be a good example of how the opposition can unite and cause a serious challenge for Museveni, wrangling and divisions cannot allow them maintain that unity up to 2016.
For, instance, he says immediately after the Luwero victory, DP’s Norbert Mao’s statements disparaging colleagues showed that genuine unity in the opposition was still a far off dream.
“Yet these opposition parties cannot amount to much as individuals, they are too weak,” he says, “The FDC, which is the biggest, was distablised by internal wrangling recently, and I don’t know whether they have recovered.”
The FDC suffered a blow over divisions following Mugisha Muntu’s defeat of Nandala Mafabi and later over fresh parliamentary appointments.
For Dr Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a political scientist, the opposition failure to do much should be blamed on the numerous constraints it faces.
Golooba-Mutebi says, for instance, that the opposition’s major challenge today is that they are only visible to people in Kampala, who see them engaging in running battles with the police. The ordinary people in the villages, who form the majority block of the electorate, are barely aware of any opposition activity.
“You need a lot of money to be visible,” Golooba-Mutebi says, “the opposition does not have that money.”
Even if they had money, he argues that it would be very hard for them to match Museveni, who takes advantage of his upcountry tours to campaign when he is doing his state duties.
Explaining Luwero win
Golooba-Mutebi also does not think the Luwero victory means much as far as 2016 polls are concerned.
“I think that election says a lot as much as it raises a lot of questions,” he says,“I hear people saying that the Luwero result might point to how the opposition will perform. I don’t agree, I think it will depend on whether the opposition is going to be as united as they were which I doubt will be the case.”
The squabbles within the opposition have alienated even the biggest constituency which would not vote Museveni; the middle-class. The opposition needs this group to organise and replenish itself with both human and material resources.
It is these resources, some sympathisers argue, that the opposition requires to mobilise the support of a critical mass required to overwhelm Museveni.
Muhumuza and Golooba-Mutebi were reacting to a central question of the opposition’s options ahead of 2016—a question that Mugisha Muntu, Norbert Mao, Olara Otunnu, Beti Kamya and their strategists must grapple with at a time when polls are suggesting that it is not just President Museveni ahead of them but his wife, Janet Museveni and the Speaker of Parliament Rebbecca Kadaga.
Pollster, Research World International (RWI) released a poll showing that if elections were carried out today, all potential opposition presidential contenders would only poll get a little over 20% of support against Museveni’s over 60%.
When the pollster asked people whether they would vote the opposition if they fielded a single candidate, only 47% of the respondents said yes. UP to 53% said no.
Without Kizza Besigye in the race, Muntu emerged the favourite flag bearer followed by Nandala Mafabi. Overall, 33% of the voters said they preferred Muntu and 31% which, with the statistical +/-3% margin of error for the poll, means that the opposition equally divided.
But with President Yoweri Museveni in the race, all opposition politicians were dwarfed.
In a race between Museveni and Besigye, 66% said they would vote Museveni. Only 22% would vote Besigye.
Between Museveni and Muntu, 64% said they would vote Museveni, only 21% would vote Muntu.
Between Museveni and OlaraOtunnu, 66% said they would vote Museveni, only 18% would elect OlaraOtunnu.
Against Museveni, DP’s Norbert Mao would get only 19%, same as former Vice President turned-NRM critic, Gilbert Bukenya.
In a race with Mbabazi, Museveni would still get 66 percent and Mbabazi 18%.
Interestingly, it is Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga who proved to be the closest contender. In a race between the two, 60% said they would vote Museveni and 25%Kadaga.
Without Museveni and Besigye in the race, the top opposition candidate would still trail Kadaga and First Lady, Janet Museveni.
Monitor Publications Limited and Uganda Governance platform, commissioned the poll with the aim of assessing the opinions and attitudes of voting-age Ugandans two years to 2016 general elections, the pollster says.
RWI conducted the poll between April.15–27 in 117 of parishes, 89 of districts with a total sample of 2142 of voting age.
Results are given with a +/-3% margin of error at a 97% confidence level.
The Kadaga factor
The poll has sparked a lot of controversy with many dismissing its results. They include Golooba-Mutebi and Muhumuza.
Muhumuza questioned “how the results paint a rosy picture of Museveni at a time when corruption and service delivery are worsening”.
Golooba-Mutebi said that elections are determined by so many things and expressed reservations about whether the poll can be taken seriously as an indicator of how people are likely to vote in 2016.
He argued that the views of people in this poll might be as a result of the media.
“A person like Kadaga has been touted so much by the media as a potential presidential candidate,” he said, “this poll might be a reflection of how people internalised that. One has got to ask themselves whether Uganda is ready for a female president; personally I don’t think so because the elections and the way they are conducted, is still very masculine, it’s rude, violent, for any female candidate, that would be a tough ride.”
Muhumuza also said that Kadaga’s performance in the poll has much to do with how she has steered parliament.
“It is clear to everyone that she has performed very well,” Muhumuza said, “as to whether she can replace Museveni, I don’t know. This can only happen if she has the support of the NRM party because despite all the challenges, the NRM is still very popular, it has resources, a history, and a lot of links.”
Muhumuza believes that any candidate not only Kadaga, would stand a better chance against the opposition in its current state.
Leader of Opposition (LoP), Wafula Oguttu said that the opposition takes the poll seriously but added that the polls are influenced by a lot of things.
“If you look at this particular poll,” he told The Independent, “It was carried out at the time when the NRM was busy splashing money in the countryside.”
Oguttu was referring to a campaign, in which the ruling party gave its legislators Shs4 million each to traverse their constituencies selling the sole candidature of their chairman, President Museveni. That is Shs1.6 billion for all the 388 MPs dumped in the economy.
Wafula added: “Museveni has been marketing himself seriously for the last 30 years; we must start doing the same even with our limited resources.”
Norbert Mao, the President of the DP defended his controversial stance after the Luwero election.
“My politics is not based on the opposition, but on Mao, the leader of the DP,” he told The Independent.
“The results of the polls might be valid now because of this noise in the media but by the time we go to polls,” he said, things might be different and if you look at my record, I have always surprised people, I have always felled giants.”
However, he said that if the opposition needs to be serious, it must be keen on fair rules, be it in fielding joint parliamentary candidates, or internal democracy.
Mao has previously argued that the opposition currently works at cross-purpose with some focussing on uprooting Museveni’s government and others on other things.
“We need to grow up as opposition and start practicing mature politics,” he said, “We must go out there and mount a serious outreach to the grassroots.”
Mathias Mpuuga, the Masaka Municipality legislator, admits that there are challenges with the opposition but disagrees with the poll results.
“This is a poll that brings in three members of the same family including President Museveni’s son,” Mpuuga says, “what has the son done to merit this mention? And you want me to take this poll seriously; I think they (pollsters) could have done better”
He wondered what parameters the pollster used.
“If you are talking about good governance,” the legislator argued, “this is where Museveni’s performance is dismal.”
Mao is not alone in questioning whether the opposition is focussing its energies in the right direction. Criticism has come even from opposition sympathisers.
The opposition’s most recent campaign of free and fair elections was such one direction.
Commentators have questioned why the opposition is spending a lot of its meagre resources on dealing with electoral rules and Electoral Commission (EC), which while problematic are only a pinch of salt in the bigger sea of governance problems that President Museveni’s government encompasses.
Indeed the recent victory in Luwero resurrected a question about why the opposition was focussing so much on the issue of electoral reforms yet they have defeated the ruling party in a string of constituencies even with its alleged rigging machinery.
Apart from Nabukenya, the opposition has over 60 parliamentary seats in parliament all of which they won under the current electoral commission.
The demand for electoral reforms, therefore, while a genuine cause, to some opposition sympathisers, it is not the most critical, some observers say. In the RWI poll, 17% of eligible voters said they would not vote because they do not trust the electoral commission. But 36% said electoral reforms are needed. But a higher 45% said it is better to have civic sensitisation. Up to 41%of eligible voters stayed away in the 2011 elections.
Political Scientist and commentator, Moses Khisa in April this year wrote in The Observer that the internal organisational capacity of today’s opposition parties is shambolic and far from inspiring.
“Their grassroots presence is at best thin and at worst non-existent,” he wrote, “We may get a new set of good electoral laws and a competent non-partisan and efficient electoral commission, but it’s unlikely that the current opposition can muster the organisational strength to defeat an entrenched state-party.”