An important feature of the recently concluded NRM election primaries was the violence and fraud that characterised the process across almost the entire country. This produced a large number of aggrieved NRM politicians who have declared they want to run as independents. This is intriguing because in spite of the unfairness with which their party treated them, none has sought to join opposition parties.
President Yoweri Museveni had previously sought to treat them as rebels and threatened to expel them from the NRM. However, after meeting the partyâ€™s parliamentary caucus, many of whose members lost in the primaries, Museveni altered his stance and allowed them to run as independents. Given the multitude of losers in the NRM primary, this was a smart move by the party president. Museveni may have been afraid that if he refused them to run as independents, many would have toed with the idea of joining the opposition.
Consequently, we are likely to have an independent candidate in almost every constituency in Uganda. It is also possible that most independents will be from the NRM. This means that NRM will most probably have two candidates in every constituency. Given that the opposition seems unable to field candidates in all constituencies, the real race in most of Uganda will be NRM running against NRM. This means that even if NRM had not opened up to multiparty politics, its internal power struggles would have created an inevitable multiparty situation.
The inability of the opposition parties to attract disgruntled NRM politicians is not because of lack of ideological support.Â We know that most NRM politicians share the sentiments of opposition parties regarding endemic corruption, incompetence and mismanagement of this nation. Therefore, the challenge for us intellectually is how to explain NRMâ€™s ability to retain a large number of followers among the leadership of this country even in the face of widespread discontent among them.
Museveni has ensured that NRM is able to exhibit and project some form of democratic character. By allowing regular internal elections, he has created opportunities for many people seeking to climb the ladders of power inside NRM to do so. Elections â€“ both within the NRM and nationally against other opposition political parties also serve another function: They furnish him an opportunity to retain a semblance of NRMâ€™s ideological posture on promoting democracy and please international creditors on whose aid we depend for over 30 percent of the budget. This is why we always have to go through all the procedures and rituals of democratic politics.
More critically, Museveni understands that an election is a time to test a politicianâ€™s popular standing. He uses this to co-opt elites through cabinet appointments. He needs to leverage the most popular individuals in districts to win over their co-ethnics. But he also needs NRM to have a big win in every election in order to sustain the myth of his personal and his political partyâ€™s invincibility. This is important to discourage potential defectors in NRM from joining other opposition parties.
For example, NRM has demonstrated that in western Uganda, it cannot be beaten. Any politician seeking to enter parliament who stands on opposition ticket knows their chances of success are very low. Therefore, even the most ardent critics of the NRM in Western Uganda do not join any opposition party. Instead, they seek to run on an NRM platform. All those who have tried to run on the opposition ticket have lost.
Take the example of Alex Ruhunda who was recently elected as NRM flag bearer for Fort Portal Municipality. Sometime last year, I attended a lunch hosted by the Dutch ambassador to discuss the political situation in Uganda. I argued that NRM should be credited for promoting liberal economic reforms that have sustained robust growth for two decades. Ruhunda was angry with me for saying something positive about NRM. He accused me of having been probably compromised by Museveni. I was thus shocked to see him as an NRM candidate.
Ruhundaâ€™s decision had little to do with his personal character, morality and integrity as most Ugandans would argue. I would even dare say that he is an honest and principled guy. However, if he were to have any chance of going to parliament, he could only do so as an NRM candidate and possibly hope to join some progressive faction inside the party to promote reform. The alternative would have been to remain a voice of a voiceless opposition and therefore stay in limbo.
The myth of invincibility that Museveni and NRM have cultivated over the years is the major reason disgruntled NRM politicians find it more profitable to run as independents. This allows them to pretend they are still loyal to the ruling party. It is also the reason why people who are very critical of NRM join it nonetheless. Museveni has been keen to reward everyone when they accept his leadership even when he knows that at heart they disagree with his politics. Such political brinkmanship was best practised by Africaâ€™s iconic predator, Marshal Mobutu of former Zaire.
Museveni recognises that cooptation of elites is cheaper than fighting. The alternative to cooptation would be repression or even mass slaughter. He has employed repression of course, but only selectively on those who have sought to challenge him â€“ like Kizza Besigye. By demonstrating the rewards of loyalty and increasing the costs of opposition on the individuals who try, the president has scared many potential NRM defectors and opponents from attempting resistance to his rule.
Museveniâ€™s willingness to embrace potentially hostile politicians has led to what economists call â€œpreference falsificationâ€ â€“ people pretending to support NRM even when they actually donâ€™t. But they stay in the party knowing that joining the opposition is not only costly in terms of repression, but denies one access to vital resources and strips them of all power and influence as well. Politicians in Uganda therefore face a choice of staying loyal to Museveni and hence continue to enjoy power and the privileges that go with it; or to openly challenge him and invite the wrath of the state like Besigye. Most people choose collaboration over resistance.